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Agencies that don’t train police to react to mental woe may be liable

In an opinion amended Friday, a panel of judges for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that police agencies open themselves to liability if they don’t train officers to detect emotional distress in individuals and react appropriately.

The opinion, originally filed in July in a case involving a 2005 suicide at the Washoe County jail, was countered by a dissenting opinion written by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, who, with six other appellate judges, contends it sets a “sweeping and dangerous precedent.”

The panel shot down a petition to have the entire court deliberate the case, a decision that opens two doors. One allows an appeal to be filed in the U.S. Supreme Court; the other allows a civil rights lawsuit to proceed against a pair of Reno police officers.

The case stems from the suicide of Brenda Clutska, a mentally ill inmate in the Washoe County Jail who hanged herself. Clutska’s children, Charla Conn and Dustin Conn, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Reno and police officers Ryan Ashton and David Robertson.

Reno-based U.S. District Judge Howard D. McKibben dismissed the lawsuit, ruling the plaintiffs failed to show the officers’ conduct contributed to Clutska’s death. The decision was appealed.

Clutska hanged herself with a bedsheet on April 28, 2005. Clutska had been taken into custody for her own protection. People arrested in this manner are usually taken to mental health facilities. Clutska was evaluated at the mental health wing of the Washoe County jail, where personnel found she had an outstanding misdemeanor warrant.

Clutska had tried to hang herself with a seat belt in the back of a police vehicle. She also told officers she would kill herself if taken to jail.

In the majority opinion, Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote that Ashton and Robertson showed “deliberate indifference” to Clutska’s “serious medical need,” and that their actions played a role in her eventual suicide.

The officers did not advise detention officers of Clutska’s suicide threat or report her behavior in the vehicle until after her death.

Kozinski wrote that, prior to this opinion, police never had to “serve as babysitters, psychiatrists or social workers, and judges didn’t run suicide-prevention programs.” He also noted that courts have historically rejected similar claims.

The case will be tried in federal court in Reno.

Contact Doug McMurdo at dmcmurdo@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135.

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