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Federal judge to probe officer training after man’s death during mental health crisis

U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller called what happened to a suicidal man being restrained by Vacaville police officers "senseless."

SACRMAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — With his suicidal brother threatening to break free from his ties in the back seat, Joseph Sturgeon pulled over into a dimly lit Vacaville gas station to call 911.

In the previous hours Sturgeon’s brother and co-worker Samuel Yasko had fallen from a three-story balcony, refused to be taken to the hospital and tried to strangle himself with a seatbelt on the commute home from a construction site. As it turns out, Yasko’s hellish workday got worse once police arrived.   

Vacaville police officers took over restraining the unarmed, shirtless Yasko and tried to keep him face down on the pavement. As the struggle ensued, Sturgeon reiterated to the officers that his brother was having a mental health crisis and had been suicidal.  

To ultimately subdue the 250-pound man, body camera video shows one officer kneeling on Yasko’s back with others stepping on his arms. Once handcuffed, Yasko stopped breathing and slipped into a coma after the officers couldn’t revive him. A few days later, the father of two was dead.

Yasko’s family says he died by positional asphyxia as result of excessive force; the city counters officers used the right tactics to restrain Yasko, who they felt was violent and on drugs.

Nearly four years later, a federal judge is prying into whether Yasko’s death was an unfortunate standalone incident or the result of the city’s failure to train its officers to handle mental health calls.     

“The senselessness of what the city’s police allegedly did is beyond debate,” said U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller in a court order issued Monday. The Obama appointee denied Vacaville's motion to dismiss and called the civil rights lawsuit a “rare case” and that she wants to hear more about what level of training the officers involved in Yasko’s death were given.

“If Vacaville had trained its officers how to use handcuffs and the WRAP restraint safely on an overweight subject, as the plaintiffs allege it should have, then Yasko would not have asphyxiated,” Mueller said in denying Vacaville’s motion to dismiss the case.

The federal lawsuit filed by Yasko’s mother and two minor children claims Vacaville didn’t have a policy requiring specially trained officers to be dispatched in situations similar to Yasko’s. Instead, the lawsuit says the city simply assigned the nearest officer to the scene regardless of their training.

Furthermore, they claim the police department authorized multiple officers to “apply considerable weight” to suspects regardless of whether they were obese or despondent, or in Yasko’s case, both.

“Defendant city of Vacaville did not adequately train its officers against the dangers of positional asphyxia in connection with obese suspects placed in a prone position for long periods of time or in connection with the WRAP,” the lawsuit filed in 2019 states.

Along with liability claims against the city, the family accuses individual officers of excessive force.

The city, located 55 miles northeast of San Francisco, tried to convince Mueller to dismiss the case in the early stages by arguing the complaint was inadequately pleaded. It said the municipal liability claims should be dropped as the plaintiffs didn’t identify a pattern of misconduct within the police department.

“Despite their characterizations of alleged city practices as ‘policies,’ plaintiffs have not established the existence of any city policy,” Vacaville argued in its motion to dismiss.

Vacaville’s attorneys at Bertrand, Fox, Elliot, Osman & Wenzel didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the case.

In her 12-page ruling, Mueller agreed the plaintiffs haven’t tied Yasko’s death to other incidents, but she found that doesn’t necessarily prohibit their Monell liability claims. Mueller said the force of the plaintiffs’ allegations are enough to warrant a closer look at the city’s police training practices.

“The plaintiffs’ allegations here show this action is one of the rare cases in which a local government’s deliberate indifference may be inferred without allegations about a pattern of similar violations,” Mueller said, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent.   

The case comes as California and a variety of states are making major changes to laws governing law enforcement training and use of force standards.

Spurred by the murder of George Floyd, California has since barred law enforcement from using strangleholds as well as any restraints that can cause positional asphyxia. Earlier this year experts testified in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial that putting weight on a handcuffed, prone person can increase the chances of positional asphyxia.  

Amid the state and country’s push to improve police training standards, now Judge Mueller wants Vacaville to answer for its own standards.

“If the city truly has no policy to train its armed officers on what to do in these situations, as the court must assume at this stage, it is plausible to infer that plaintiffs could prove Vacaville was deliberately indifferent,” Mueller said. “Serious injuries and death are the obvious and highly predictable consequences of sending untrained and armed officers to respond to mental health crises.”

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