The city of Seattle will pay $1.75 million to settle a federal civil-rights lawsuit filed by the father of a mentally ill man who suffered severe brain damage when he was held down, choking on blood and vomit, after being handcuffed and gagged by Seattle police, according to the man’s lawyers.
The Seattle City Attorney’s Office confirmed the settlement this afternoon.
The settlement may be among the largest excessive-force settlements ever paid by the city. The city paid $1.5 million to settle with the family of John T. Williams, who was fatally shot by a police officer in August 2010.
The recent settlement arose from the May 2010 arrest of Brian Scott Torgerson, a schizophrenic man who was having a mental-health crisis when his parents called police in hopes of getting help for him. Officers who responded to his Capitol Hill apartment decided to arrest Torgerson on an outstanding misdemeanor warrant.
According to the lawsuit, the first officers on the scene said Torgerson was cooperative and had stepped into the hallway to talk when they grabbed him and a struggle ensued.
Over the next several minutes, more than a dozen officers arrived. Torgerson, who was 45 at the time, was punched and elbowed in the face, tased at least twice and bound hand and foot and fitted with a so-called “spitsock” — a fine-mesh hood — placed over his head to prevent him from getting bodily fluids on the officers.
At least two officers, and at one point several others, forcefully held him face-down on the floor as the spitsock clogged with blood and vomit, according to the lawsuit.
At least two officers — and sometimes several others — knelt or kept pressure on his back and shoulders almost the entire time, said attorney Edwin Budge, making it impossible for him to breathe.
A witness later told defense attorneys that Torgerson was repeatedly asking for help while several officers pushed his face and chest into the floor. The witness — who was never interviewed by police — said he thought the officers’ actions were “very excessive” and said he was worried the man couldn’t breathe. The witness said Torgerson was limp when the officers finally dragged him to the elevator to take him to the lobby.
There, another witness said she saw the officers take Torgerson 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 — face-down 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.
Torgerson, now 47, was hospitalized at Harborview Medical Center for several weeks and then sent to Western State Hospital. He now lives in a group home, Budge said.
The Torgerson case was among the incidents highlighted in the U.S. Department of Justice’s findings issued in December 2012 that the SPD routinely used excessive force, often against the mentally ill or the intoxicated. The DOJ said the department’s officers often escalated minor situations into physical confrontations, and then used force to settle them.