If You Name It, Train It: Make Policy More Than Just Words, Court Says

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Having a policy on critical operational matters is one thing. Training on it is another. And if the two aren’t yoked together, brace for the worst.

That caution has recently been emphatically underscored by both a jury verdict and a judge’s ruling in a U.S. District Court in the state of Washington in a case involving police use of deadly force against a mentally ill man. (Legal documents relating to the case can be accessed online by Googling Ostling v. City of Bainbridge Island.)

Two years ago two officers responded to a 911 call from a family home where a couple’s agitated son, suffering from schizophrenia, had locked himself in his garage apartment. Yelling and at times somewhat incoherent, the subject insisted “he did not need help, that he was fine, and that the officers should leave.”

Details are in dispute, but the officers persisted until the door was open, revealing the subject standing inside the room holding a double-bladed axe. After one officer Tased him unsuccessfully, the other shot him. The man had bled out from a wound to his femoral artery.

The PD’s General Orders state that when confronting a mentally ill person, an officer should “assess information on the subject” and speak with acquaintances or family members regarding the illness. Where violent or destructive acts have not occurred, an officer should “avoid physical contact and take time to assess the situation,” requesting professional assistance if it’s available to aid in communicating.

Yet in the trial of a lawsuit brought by the deceased’s family, the two officers testified that they had “received no training on how to deal with the mentally ill” from their agency, even though officers on that department confront EDPs about twice every week. One of the involved officers opined that he did not “think special police skills and abilities are required to effectively deal with” mentally ill people.

The trial jury agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that the officers’ actions were “directly counter to what a properly trained officer would have done.” Jurors let the officers off the hook personally, but found the defendant city liable for failure to train. Damages were assessed at $1,000,000. City lawyers moved to have the judgment reversed, but Judge Ronald Leighton declined, emphasizing the responsibility of agencies to train officers on official policies.

In this case, Leighton wrote, the police were “the moving force” in “causing an unnecessary–but very predictable–confrontation…. At the time he was shot, [the subject] was in his own home, had committed no crime, and was yelling to be left alone.” The officers persisted “without any pressing need and without any forethought as to how the schizophrenic man mighty react.” Their agency’s failure to train them–“even minimally”–on policies “it already had in place…ultimately caused [the subject’s] death.”

[Our thanks to litigation consultant Michael Brave, president of LAAW International, Inc., for bring this case to our attention.]

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