911 call leads Prosser, Erskine into civil rights verdict, but they won't appeal.
By DANA LARSEN
A district court jury has ruled that Storm Lake Police Chief Mark Prosser and Police Captain Todd Erskine violated the civil rights of a Storm Lake couple during a 911 response call to a local home in August of 1999.
Prosser and Erskine have chosen not to appeal their verdict, according to defense attorney Phil Redenbaugh. Damages awarded to Jeni and Milton Cruz for pain and suffering will total $10,000, but the amount assessed against Prosser and Erskine will be covered by the city's insurance policy.
The City of Storm Lake was also named as a defendant in the three-day trial, but no judgement was found against the city, as the jury decided that actions of the officers were not the result of city government policy.
The jury found that the police officials' conduct toward Mr. and Mrs. Cruz was "unreasonably intrusive," and that the detention of Mr. Cruz was "unreasonably long." Those situations amounted to an "illegal arrest" of the couple, the verdict documents said.
The incident began shortly after 7:15 a.m. on the morning of August 11, 1999. According to Redenbaugh, a call came in to the Buena Vista County Communications Center. A woman, crying as she spoke, reported that she had just slit her wrists, and said that she would cut herself again. She asked for someone to help her.
The local practice in the case of a life-threatening incident is for all available officers to be called to a scene, Redenbaugh said. Prosser and Erskine were the first to arrive.
The two officers determined that the weapon involved in the incident was a razor knife. They asked if the woman would come to the door of the home, and she did. The woman was handcuffed and placed in a police vehicle.
Prosser and Erskine then went to the door to determine if anyone else was in the home. The woman with the knife had told the communications center that she had been in the home with her sister. The officers called out twice at the door, identifying themselves as police officers and asking anyone in the home to come out slowly, Redenbaugh said. After getting no response, they entered and began to check the rooms. They found a Hispanic male in one bedroom, with the door partly closed. They handcuffed him, and took him to a safe position outside the home. That man was not involved in the lawsuit.
In a second bedroom, the officers found Mr. and Mrs. Cruz, both nude. Mrs. Cruz was the sister of the woman who initiated the call. The officers allowed the couple to dress, handcuffed them and took them outside, Redenbaugh said.
After checking the rest of the home and identifying all of the persons detained, it was determined that the three individuals were not involved in the razor knife incident, and all were released with no charges filed.
"The record shows that the officers were on the scene for 27 minutes," Redenbaugh said.
The defense relied on an expert from the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy, who testified to the jury that Prosser and Erskine both acted according to law enforcement techniques for clearing a dwelling and detaining individuals in such a case as they are currently being taught at the academy.
The plaintiffs brought in a former FBI agent from Atlanta, Georgia, who disagreed, saying that the officers' actions in such a call were unnecessarily intrusive to the Cruz couple.
"Of course, both sides have their experts in a case like this, and the jury said that the detention of Jeni Cruz was unreasonably intrusive, and that Milton Cruz' detention lasted unreasonably long. I'm sure that the fact that they were found unclothed had something to do with the jury's thinking, and possibly also that they were handcuffed," Redenbaugh said. "There was nothing unusual about the officer's response in this particular case, there was no cursing, no racial slurs or anything else out of the normal police response."
The plaintiffs' lawyer had originally requested a total of $48,000 in judgements against Prosser, Erskine and the city, as compensation for past pain and suffering and as punitive damages to punish the defendants for their actions. The jury decided to award only a fraction of that amount, provided for no punitive damages, and made no financial assessment against the city.
While the decision could be appealed, Redenbaugh said there is no intention to do so.
"A jury has the ability to sit two years later and second guess the actions of a police officer taken in a situation where split second judgements must be made. I still believe the officers acted reasonably, and they went by what the law enforcement academy teachers police officers to do," he said.
"The decision not to appeal is a question of economics," he adding, noting that the officers do not want to expend additional time and spend additional money on defending themselves in the case.
The court decision is not expected to have any impact on the two police officials' employment or assignment.
In recent times, lawsuits relating to police actions in emergency calls have become quite common, Redenbaugh said, a situation that he termed "unfortunate."
"It's very hard to look at a sterile court record and analyze what really happened," he said. "Police have a responsibility to go into a dwelling and make a protective sweep. How that sweep is done involves some discretion. Do you use handcuffs? Where and how do you detain people? Those are the questions being asked," Redenbaugh said.
Jeni Cruz is to receive $9,000, Milton Cruz, $1,000.
The Cruz couple was represented by attorney Blake Parker, Fort Dodge. Judge Mark Bennett presided over the trial.