LOUISVILLE (AP) — A federal judge has found that a Kentucky police officer used unreasonable force when he shot an unarmed, intoxicated man with cognitive disabilities as he staggered along a railroad track, refusing to take his hand out of his pants and disobeying officers’ orders.
U.S. District Court Judge Joseph H. McKinley’s ruling came in a civil case filed by the man’s family against the city of Bowling Green and several officers involved. His finding that Officer Keith Casada’s decision to shoot 46-year-old Gregory Harrison was “objectively unreasonable” means the lawsuit can move forward toward trial.
An attorney for Harrison’s family hailed the ruling as a symbol that judges and juries, for decades hesitant to blame officers for killing civilians, are no longer willing to ignore brutality after a string of high-profile cases across the country. The city’s attorney criticized it as “a 20/20 hindsight” decision that failed to factor in the split-second decisions officers often must make. Both the officer and the man killed were white.
The ordeal began after 1 a.m. August 12, 2012, when 46-year-old Gregory Harrison called police several times to say he wanted to kill his brother, had a gun and needed help, according to police logs entered into the court record.
Harrison was intellectually disabled, with an IQ of less than 69, said attorney Gary Logsdon, who filed the suit on behalf of his family. The disability, mixed with alcohol, rendered him, a “pathetically helpless individual,” Logsdon said.
Bowling Green Police officers tracked him down to a set of railroad tracks. He was so drunk he had urinated on himself, the judge wrote in his order. He was sweaty, shouting and cried intermittently. He asked to talk to his sister and said “the voices won’t stop.”
Several officers asked him repeatedly to put his hands up. He refused, and kept his left hand stuffed into the back of his pants. The standoff stretched on for 12 minutes.
Thomas Kerrick, a lawyer for the city and the officers, said the officers had no way to know he didn’t actually have a gun. He had told dispatchers he had one, and refused to remove his hand from his pants.
He was facing at an angle away from the officers, more than 70 feet from them and never advanced.
But the officers said they heard him say, “momma, forgive me for what I’m about to do” and worried he would act imminently.
Casada fired a single shot from an AR-15 and hit him in the abdomen. He died later at the hospital.
The Kentucky State Police investigated and submitted their report to prosecutors, which declined to pursue criminal charges.
But McKinley’s 66-page ruling listed a number of reasons he found the shooting unreasonable: Harrison was committing only minor offenses, he did not advance on the officers or threaten them and he was obviously mentally ill and intoxicated.
Casada has since left the department to become a missionary, Kerrick said. The department was surprised and disappointed by the judge’s ruling, he said, because they believed they did the best they could that night to deal with a volatile situation.
Logsdon said he hoped it sent a message: “To protect and serve should have meaning, and it shouldn’t mean ‘on your knees or I’m going to kill you, show me your hands or I’m going to shoot you.’ There’s a better way.”