A Washington State University student is suing the Pullman Police Department alleging a pair of officers used excessive force while taking him into custody inside Jack in the Box in the summer of 2016.
The student, Kyle North, who was later diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, is seeking damages for “pain, suffering, emotional distress, anguish and humiliation,” according to the civil lawsuit filed in August in U.S. District Court in Spokane. Among other allegations, North says the officers, despite his condition, broke his arm and shocked him with a stun gun when he failed to follow their directions.
In a response filed Sept. 28, attorneys at Evans, Craven and Lackie in Spokane, representing the Pullman Police Department and the two officers, denied any wrongdoing and demanded a jury trial.
The encounter was recorded by the officer’s body cameras and on the store’s surveillance video. A copy of the footage was provided to The Spokesman-Review, in addition to training reports and certificates that show the two officers, Douglas Anderson and Michael Sontgerath, had completed crisis intervention and mental health training prior to encountering North.
The lawsuit states that around 3 a.m. on Aug. 18, 2016, a night manager at Jack in the Box on N.E. Stadium Way called police after North said he was afraid he was being followed and needed police protection. Hours earlier, a woman who was hanging out with North in Moscow also called 911 for a welfare check after North had become “increasingly paranoid” and expressed concerns that he was being followed.
When officers arrived about 10 minutes later, body camera footage shows North greet Officer Sontgerath and ask him if he’d like to “just have a conversation” with him. When the officer asks why, he replies “for my safety.”
After several seconds, North tells the officer he’s looking for his friend – the girl he was around earlier in the day – and hands Sontgerath her driver’s license. He then asks if the officer can sit down with him and have a conversation, which Sontgerath declines.
“What’s going on, do you have mental issues?” the officer asks.
“No, not at all,” North replies. “I’m just a little bit concerned about the safety of myself and the safety of others.”
Officer Anderson then arrives in a separate patrol car and for several minutes, both officers stand and talk to North inside the Jack in the Box. He continues to bring up how he’s being followed, and he appears to struggle with keeping a train of thought.
After about 15 minutes, North and the officers agree that he should receive mental health treatment at a local hospital. As they move to exit the door, however, North retreats further inside and stands in the hallway where workers access the area behind the front counter.
About two minutes later, North tells the officers he’s fine and that he’d “like a drink of water.” As he moves toward the soda machine, Sontgerath grabs him and with the help of Officer Anderson, they push him onto the floor face down as they ready their handcuffs.
“Don’t fight with me, you’re gonna get hurt,” Sontgerath says. “You’re gonna get hurt.”
With his arms behind his back, the lawsuit says Sontgerath then fractures and dislocates North’s right arm. The video shows North screaming out in pain and asking for help.
After getting him to his feet, North breaks away and screams for further help as he lands on a store room floor and Officer Anderson tries picking him up by his fractured arm. He begins praying as Sontgerath accuses him of being on drugs.
After several minutes of trying to get North off the floor, the scuffle moves further into the room. Anderson eventually fires his Taser into North’s chest.
In addition to excessive force, the lawsuit also alleges both officers failed to follow their department-mandated mental health training.
The Pullman Police Department declined to comment.
Walter Scott, the director of the Psychology Clinic at Washington State University, while declining to comment on the specifics of the case, said people experiencing schizophrenic or psychotic episodes tend to endure a wide range of delusions and hallucinations, mostly auditory, and can exhibit delusional and paranoid behavior.
“They can hold these fixed, rigid body positions,” he said. “More often it’s folks having problems with goal-directed behavior. Or childlike behaviors.”
Scott stressed it’s nearly impossible for medical professionals, much less police officers, to diagnose schizophrenia or any other type of psychosis based on just one interaction.
“If we see them, we have to rule out all kinds of things before we see schizophrenia,” he said. “We have to see some of those symptoms lasting for six months.”
Once paramedics arrived, they transported North to Pullman Regional Hospital, where he was diagnosed with acute psychosis with agitation, a right elbow fracture and dislocation, and rhabdomyolysis – when torn muscle fibers release toxins into the bloodstream.
As a result of the incident, the lawsuit says North “has suffered and will continue to suffer emotional and mental injury,” distress and permanent physical injury.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter