(CN) – A New Jersey cop must face claims that he fatally shot a non-threatening suicide caller partly because his police department does not train officers on how to deal with suicide situations, a federal judge ruled.
When Bellmawr and Brooklawn, N.J., police responded to a suicide call made on Chris Wood’s phone around 9 p.m. on April 26, 2012 in Camden County, no one answered his doorbell.
Sgt. Jeffrey Vance then radioed dispatch to call Chris’s number, court records show.
“Hi, it’s Chris Wood; I’m dead,” the voicemail greeting said, according to the call transcript. “You probably got the wrong number. At the tone please ...”
Officer Charles Holland testified that he then used his flashlight to break a small glass window pane next to the building’s front doorknob and opened the door.
The officers announced themselves as police, and at the top of the stairs found Chris, who later testified that he had been sleeping on the pull-out couch after a day of heavy drinking.
As the officers handcuffed Chris, they heard his brother Michael towards the back of the apartment say Chris was “not the one you want,” police testified. “I’m the one that called.”
Holland testified he looked through the open bedroom door and saw Michael sitting “Indian-style” on the floor “kind of twisting” a large knife into his upper thigh area.
The officer testified that he said he was there to help and asked Michael to drop the knife.
Yet Michael repeatedly said “something to the effect I just want you to fucking kill me” and that he had lost his parents, girlfriend and kids, according to Holland.
Though Vance countered that Michael did not seem agitated or threatening, as the encounter was a “barricade” situation, Vance radioed for a SWAT team.
Michael later got up, holding the blade along his forearm.
Holland testified that Michael advanced toward him, pointing the knife forward, and turned toward Vance, so Holland fired two shots into Michael’s torso.
But Vance testified that Michael never turned towards him or pointed the knife at anyone. Michael was pronounced dead just before 11 p.m. from multiple gunshot wounds.
Holland, Vance, and their departments later testified they do not provide any training or have any formal policies on how to deal with barricaded or suicidal subjects.
Deborah Wilson, Michael’s sister and the administrator of his estate, sued the officers and departments in federal court, alleging wrongful death and other claims.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Joseph Rodriguez refused to grant the defendants summary judgment on the Fourth Amendment deadly force claim against Holland.
“According to Vance’s account, Michael Wood never raised the knife, nor waved the knife, nor pointed the knife in the officers’ direction,” Rodriguez wrote. “He merely palmed the knife at his side, with the blade running along his forearm as he walked -- not ran or charged – toward the officers. If this version is found to be true, then a reasonable juror could find that a constitutional violation did occur.”
A jury could find Holland and Vance’s conduct unreasonable, the 40-page ruling states.
“Prior to their forced entry, there was no indication that [Michael] had harmed anyone,” Rodriguez wrote. “The officers knew that they were responding to an individual with a ‘psych emergency,’ yet they escalated the situation.”
The judge declined to throw out the municipal liability claims against Bellmawr and Brooklawn, as well as the wrongful death claims against the Camden County boroughs, Holland and Vance.
“Triable issues of fact exist as to whether the need for training in barricaded subject / suicidal subject situations was sufficiently obvious to constitute deliberate indifference,” Rodriguez said.
One of Vance’s attorneys, Arthur Murray with Alterman & Associates in Marlton, N.J., said his law firm is “pleased the court dismissed two of our three clients [the two other officers on the scene] in the pre-suit phase and remain confident Vance will be vindicated by a jury.”
One of Wilson's attorneys, Robert Hensler in Collingswood, N.J., said she and her family "feel that the motion for summary judgment was properly denied by Judge Rodriguez, and she looks forward to continuing to pursue the permitted claims on behalf of her brother, Michael."
The trial date will be discussed in late January, the attorneys said.
Holland and the boroughs’ attorneys with Madden & Madden in Haddonfield, N.J., did not return requests for comment emailed Monday.