The city of Seattle will pay $1.75 million to a mentally ill man who suffered severe brain damage during a violent arrest involving 15 Seattle police officers in May 2010.
Brian Scott Torgerson’s father had filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit alleging Torgerson was beaten by officers, restrained hand-and-foot and had his head wrapped in a mesh “spit hood” even though he was bleeding heavily and vomiting.
The settlement may be the largest ever in a case alleging excessive force by the Seattle Police Department, which is implementing sweeping reforms of its policies and training after findings by the U.S. Department of Justice that its officers routinely use excessive force, often against the mentally ill or chemically impaired. The city paid $1.5 million to settle claims by the family of John T. Williams, a First Nations woodcarver who was fatally shot by a police officer in August 2010.
In Torgerson’s case, police had responded to his apartment at the request of his parents, who wanted him to receive help after he had assaulted his father the night before, according to court documents.
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The attorneys representing Darryl Torgerson, Brian’s father, said several of the officers either sat on him or held him down after he’d been immobilized, leading to “compression asphyxiation” that deprived his brain of oxygen.
However, Assistant City Attorney Brian Maxey believed the evidence pointed toward Torgerson suffering from “excited delirium,” a state of extreme mental and physical agitation sometimes seen in the mentally ill that Maxey said can throw the body’s chemistry out of balance.
What happened to Torgerson was a “horrible outcome” to the officers’ legal attempt to take him into custody, he said.
“Honestly, I can’t think of anything that anyone could have done differently,” Maxey said Friday.
Brian Torgerson spent nearly three months at Harborview Medical Center after the incident, then was transferred to Western State Hospital after a judge declared him incapacitated. Attorney Edwin Budge said he is currently living in a group home.
The case was settled after both sides had filed extensive motions in U.S. District Court.
According to depositions and the motions, Torgerson was cooperative when he came to the door but recoiled when the two officers grabbed him and tried to put him in handcuffs. A scuffle ensued in which the officers said Torgerson resisted two applications of a Taser, eventually taking the device from an officer and throwing it down the hall.
The struggle ended after a dispatcher — unable to contact the struggling officers — called for “fast backup.” More than a dozen officers from two precincts responded to Torgerson’s fifth-floor apartment, crowding the narrow hallway and quickly subduing him.
According to sworn statements by several officers and witnesses, he was cuffed behind his back and his legs were zip-tied together. He was placed on his stomach and officers leaned heavily on his back, shoulders and head, according to the court file. He was later taken to the elevator and down to the lobby, which is where he stopped breathing, according to the court files.
Torgerson’s attorneys located a pair of civilian witnesses who were in the apartment building and who questioned the force used by the officers and their apparent indifference to Torgerson’s obvious distress.
“I vividly remember thinking that the officers’ actions were very excessive,” said Cole Harrington, another fifth-floor resident, who came out of his apartment after hearing the commotion.
“There were so many officers, and it seemed totally unnecessary for them to force this man’s body and head into the ground so forcefully and for so long. I was concerned for the man’s ability to breathe,” Harrington said in a sworn declaration.
In the lobby, apartment resident Elisa Hedin said she watched the officers “take the man off the elevator and literally throw him on the floor of the lobby.”
Once in the lobby, the officers strapped Torgerson — still handcuffed, with his legs zip-tied together — facedown on a backboard.
At some point, estimated to be about 20 minutes after he was first handcuffed, Torgerson quit breathing. The lawsuit alleges that several officers continued to hold him down even then.
The Torgerson case was one of several cited in a December 2011 report by the Department of Justice that found that SPD officers used excessive force in one of every five arrests, often escalating minor incidents into physical confrontations.
The case was also used to illustrate the need for more crisis-intervention training for officers.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.