Lawsuit filed over 2019 police custody death in Connecticut

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A wrongful death lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses Stamford, Connecticut, police of using excessive force on a mentally ill man and failing to immediately get him emergency medical and psychiatric care after he was taken into custody in October 2019.

Steven Barrier died on his 23rd birthday after becoming unresponsive in a police cruiser on the way to the police department, where officers carried him into a holding cell and some of them made jokes as he lay unconscious and handcuffed, according to the lawsuit and police body camera videos.

The death of Barrier, who was Black, sparked protests, including one in which several demonstrators and police officers were injured and six protesters were arrested.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court by Barrier’s mother, Valerie Jaddo, and the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, a nonprofit group that provides legal aid to low-income people with mental health conditions.

Stamford officials do not comment on pending litigation, said Kathryn Emmett, director of legal affairs and corporation counsel for the city. Police Chief Timothy Shaw declined to comment.

Officers had taken Barrier into custody in the early morning hours of Oct. 23 during a foot chase in connection with a reported domestic violence incident at his and his mother’s home.

Barrier complained of being tired and officers pulled him to the cruiser because he was having trouble walking. He became unresponsive in a police cruiser on the way to the police department.

Officers removed him from the cruiser and carried him to a holding room shortly before 2 a.m. Four minutes after arriving at the police department, an officer called for paramedics, who arrived five minutes later.

While awaiting the medical response and as Barrier lay unconscious in the holding room, officers checked if he was breathing but did not perform CPR, the lawsuit says. They also debated whether Barrier was pretending to be unconscious, with one officer saying Barrier deserved an acting award, according to body camera video.

Officers also joked that Barrier must have become unresponsive because of the bad driving of the transporting officer and that he might wake up if someone put a credit card under his nose.

Barrier was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

The medical examiner’s office ruled Barrier died of a heart attack, and bipolar disorder with psychotic features was a contributing factor. Officers did not use stun guns or any other weapons on him.

“My son did not have to die,” Jaddo said in a statement provided by her lawyer. “He was having a mental health crisis and instead of being treated by doctors or therapists, he was arrested and surrounded by the police.

“I told them he needed urgent psychiatric help but the police handcuffed my son and dragged him down a steep hill in the pouring rain,” she said. “He was put into the back of a police car, and died on the floor of a jail surrounded by people who were untrained and uncaring. They laughed at him and mocked him while he was dying in front of them.”

The lawsuit is seeking unspecified money damages and an array of actions including required crisis intervention training for officers and a court order mandating that the city set up protocols for responding to calls involving mentally ill people with social workers and other professionals.

No criminal charges or disciplinary actions were brought against the several officers involved in Barrier’s arrest and detention.

Barrier was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other psychiatric disorders, and had recently changed medications, said Alan Fuchsberg, a lawyer for Barrier’s mother.

“This was a perfect opportunity for the police to call a crisis intervention team,” Fuchsberg said. “It provided the perfect circumstance to address this as a mental health crisis should be. But instead they came in brutal force.”

He added that if police had called paramedics immediately instead of bringing him to the police station, “Steve Barrier would be alive today.”

A panel of police officials and community members including a pastor reviewed the case. It found there was a lack of consensus among officers on what to do with Barrier while he was in the holding room until medics arrived and no officers assumed command of the situation. Officers did monitor Barrier and made sure his airway was not obstructed, the report said.

The panel’s report also said not all officers had activated their body cameras when they should have.

The report’s recommendations included providing mental health aid early on during calls, medically evaluating people in police custody before they are transported to the department, training officers in CPR, placing an automatic external defibrillator in the jail cell and a need for a written policy in dealing with calls involving mental health.

Police officials have said many of the recommendations have been enacted.

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