Mom sues officer who killed son after proclaiming: ‘You’re about to die’
Pat Reavy, KSL.com
SALT LAKE CITY (KSL.com) — “You’re about to die, my friend.”
Those were the words of West Valley Police Sgt. Tyler Longman moments before fatally shooting Michael Chad Breinholt at point-blank range after Breinholt, despite being handcuffed and in custody in the basement of West Valley City Hall, had grabbed an officer’s gun.
It is now also the opening quote of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Friday by Breinholt’s mother, Susan Neese, who is the heir of Breinholt’s estate. The wrongful death suit was filed against Longman, the West Valley City Police Department, Chief Colleen Jacobs, West Valley City and at least four other officers.
“This is a civil rights action seeking justice for the cruel shooting and killing that followed (those words). Chad’s entirely preventable death was the culmination of hours of discriminatory deliberate indifference toward, and reckless disregard of Chad’s safety and mental health while he was in the custody of the West Valley City Police Department,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit contends that while police officers knew Breinholt was intoxicated and “overdosed on psychiatric medication, suffering serious mental health conditions, and experiencing a suicidal crisis,” they antagonized, berated and humiliated him before killing him.
On Aug. 23, 2019, West Valley police were called to a business near 2900 S. Redwood Road where Breinholt. 31, had gone to visit his girlfriend.
“The caller reported that Chad was ‘stumbling’ and ‘slurring’ and that ‘we are … mostly concerned about his health’ and ‘don’t want anything to happen to him.’ The caller stated, ‘I called because I don’t want anything to happen to him, he might need to go to a detox,'” according to the lawsuit.
The caller also told dispatchers that Breinholt was suffering from depression and had taken a large number of pills that are meant to treat anxiety but could potentially cause an overdose if abused and taken with alcohol.
When police arrived and questioned Breinholt, he “frequently cried uncontrollably. Chad was obviously experiencing a mental and emotional crisis,” the lawsuit states.
Breinholt was arrested for suspicion of DUI and taken to a 6-foot-by-7-foot room in the basement of West Valley City Hall to wait while a search warrant was completed and Intoxilyzer test was conducted.
“For over two hours, Chad was trapped in and near the Intoxilyzer room with his hands cuffed behind his back,” the lawsuit states.
At one point, Breinholt cried on the concrete floor for 11 minutes. The officers knew that he was “delirious, incoherent, intoxicated, overmedicated, unable to think clearly, distressed, suffering serious mental conditions and suicidal,” but they did not show “any empathy or concern for the safety of Chad, whom the officers had a duty to protect,” the lawsuit alleges.
Breinholt eventually was able to take a shoe off and claimed he had a gun in it. As an officer went to collect Breinholt’s shoe, Breinholt, who was handcuffed, managed to grab the officer’s gun. The gun never came out of the holster as two officers struggled with Breinholt to get his hands off the weapon.
Approximately 7 1/2 seconds after the struggle began, Longman entered the room and punched Breinholt, who still did not let go of the gun, and then fired the fatal shot, according to a report from the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office.
District Attorney Sim Gill found the shooting to be legally justified based on how state law is written. But he also noted that he found the words, “You’re about to die my friend,” to be “reprehensible” and believes the shooting could have been avoided. He also conceded that Longman may have made that statement as a warning to Breinholt.
In the lawsuit, the family states that the officers didn’t need to have their guns with them while processing Breinholt’s arrest. And that “Chad was obviously not presenting a physical risk to anyone by holding his own shoe behind his back in his cuffed hands.”
Furthermore, the lawsuit argues that because of the safety mechanisms on the officer’s holster, “it was physically impossible for Chad to access, let alone remove and use, any officer’s weapon.
“Chad only weighed approximately 125 pounds and his hands were cuffed behind his back. He was also highly intoxicated, overmedicated, weakened, delirious, confused, and reacting slowly. It was not difficult for multiple officers to physically push and control Chad. By the time Longman announced he was about to kill Chad, (officers) Atkin and Wilhelm had already successfully restrained Chad and neutralized any possible threat, which never actually existed, that Chad could obtain any of the officers’ weapons,” the lawsuit contends.
West Valley police released a brief statement Monday, saying they had not been served with the lawsuit yet.
“However, we can say that we concur with the findings of multiple experts cited in the recent justified ruling by the Salt Lake County district attorney that Mr. Breinholt’s actions, although unfortunate, led to a situation that resulted in use of force by our officer. We look forward to the opportunity to vigorously defend our officer, our police department and our city in this matter.”
At the time of Gill’s ruling, the department stated that even before the Breinholt shooting, they were taking steps to improve how their officers conduct certain operations so they can be done more safely. For example, with the recent completion of West Valley’s new police station, officers now have access to a secure processing area and holding cells.
Members of Breinholt’s family, including his mother, say the lawsuit is the first step toward police reform and preventing another tragedy.
“Chad was shot in the head with his hands cuffed behind his back is an execution-style killing,” Neese said. “We have no choice but to file these civil suits to try to make these changes happen.”
“The fact that they can just get away with that, there needs to be some reform — there needs to be some change,” said Chase Breinholt, Chad Breinholt’s brother.