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Oakland can’t dodge suit over dad killed by terrorizing neighbor

By telling a family their calls for help were not important in earshot of a harassing neighbor, a judge found Oakland police officers may have put them in more danger.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The city of Oakland cannot escape claims that it endangered a murdered father's life when it refused to take action after repeated 911 calls about a menacing neighbor targeting the man’s family with violent threats and harassment.

Miles Armstead, a 44-year-old father of three who was expecting a child with his second wife, was doing yard work at his home on the corner of 76th and Ney Avenues in East Oakland on May 1, 2020, when he was shot and killed by a man who had been terrorizing the family for months.

In a lawsuit filed this past year, Armstead’s wife and two children say Alameda County and the city of Oakland failed to inform them that their neighbor, who had been arrested for violating a restraining order, was about to be released from jail. The neighbor, Jamal Thomas, immediately returned to the home where he was illegally squatting when he spotted Miles Armstead and fired the fatal bullet. 

In the months leading up to the murder, the Armsteads say police did little to nothing when they called about 22 times to report their neighbor’s increasingly volatile conduct, including a December 2019 incident in which Thomas threw a rock through the family’s front window. The hurled rock sent glass shards flying and injured Miles Armstead’s pregnant wife, Melina Armstead. Thomas would go on to break the Armsteads’ windows another 14 times before he was later arrested for violating a restraining order that required him to stay away from the family.

The city of Oakland asked U.S. District Judge Laurel Beeler to dismiss the Armsteads’ claims against it, arguing it has no duty to protect individuals from third parties.

In a 16-page ruling issued Saturday, Judge Beeler dismissed some claims but rejected the city’s argument that it was immune from all liability. The judge concluded the city could be deemed negligent under a “state-created danger” doctrine.

“The allegations about Mr. Thomas’ escalating and persistent violence and the officers’ failures to intervene — including telling the Armsteads in Mr. Thomas’ presence that they would do nothing — plausibly pleads deliberate indifference to a foreseeable risk,” Beeler wrote.

The judge cited incidents in which police officers came to the Armsteads’ home in response to 911 calls and allowed the harassing neighbor to hear them say that police were understaffed and overworked and that the family’s calls were not high priorities.

“The officers here allegedly emboldened Mr. Thomas by saying within earshot of him that they would do nothing,” Beeler wrote.

The judge was not swayed by the argument that Thomas, and not the city of Oakland, was responsible for creating the perilous situation.

“The city’s argument — the danger existed regardless of the officers’ conduct — is not persuasive,” Beeler wrote. “The officers need not have ‘created’ the danger entirely. Worsening an existing danger satisfies the first prong of the doctrine.”

However, Beeler found the Armsteads failed to identify a policy or practice that caused the state-created danger, a prerequisite for advancing a civil rights claim against a government entity.

The Armsteads said officers were overextended and could not prioritize their calls for help, but they didn't say that deficiency stemmed from an official policy or practice of the Oakland Police Department. Beeler dismissed that and other claims — including negligent hiring and equal protection — with leave to amend, meaning the Armsteads will get a second chance to advance those claims in revised lawsuit.

The judge dismissed without leave to amend a claim that the city violated Marsy’s Act, a state law that guarantees certain rights for crime victims, because there is no right to sue for damages under that law.

The ruling did not address separate claims filed against Alameda County, including an allegation that a county probation officer overseeing Thomas’ probation did nothing when Miles Armstead complained to him about his neighbor’s harassing behavior.

On March 1, Beeler granted the Armsteads’ motions for default judgment against Thomas and Jesse Chambers, the landlord of the property where Thomas was illegally squatting. Neither defendant answered the Armsteads’ complaint or made an appearance in the lawsuit. The Armsteads say the landlord was aware Thomas was illegally squatting on the property and that Thomas “posed an active and continuing risk of physical and emotional harm to plaintiffs.”

The Armsteads’ attorney, Adante Pointer of Lawyers for the People, and the Oakland City Attorney’s Office did not immediately return emails requesting comment Monday.

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