Officer-involved fatal shooting case dismissed
A district court case regarding a Mitchell man killed three years ago during a struggle with a police officer was dismissed recently.
But in relation to elements such as body cameras that were used by the prosecution to criticize police tactics during the case, all is not the same in the Mitchell Police Division as it was early in the morning on Sept. 4, 2015.
On that date, Mitchell police responded to a service call at 1:52 a.m. at a residence in the 500 block of North Mentzer Street, according to a press release from the Attorney General's office issued shortly after the incident.
There, 37-year-old Curtis Meyer was found with a gun, and when Officer Russell Stevenson felt threatened, a 15- to 20-second struggle between the two men took place, ending when Stevenson shot Meyer in the neck with Meyer's gun.
Meyer died at the scene, and the Attorney General's office deemed that the shooting had been justified. But Meyer's mother and the representative for his estate, Hon Kasselder, filed a complaint in 2017, asserting that Meyer's rights had been violated and that he had been unreasonably restrained.
Kasselder sought "to recover damages resulting from the loss of the decedent's life, including the decedent's fear, pain and suffering prior to his death," according to the complaint.
The complaint was brought against the city of Mitchell, Stevenson, Department of Public Safety Chief Lyndon Overweg and three anonymous police officers and city administrators.
Kasselder held that the city had delegated to Overweg and the three anonymous parties the responsibility of putting policies into place for Mitchell police, including those dealing with use of force.
"We've had ongoing use of force training for years, and we continue to do it," said Overweg, adding that the department also subscribes to a firm that provides updates on any procedure changes or court rulings concerning law enforcement. "As far as use of force, we continue to train every year ... There's several variations of it, anywhere from deadly force to handcuffing to different compliance techniques, there's all different types that's all in the use of force training."
In September of 2017, on behalf of Stevenson, Overweg and the city, Sioux Falls-based attorney Gary Thimsen said the defendants were protected by the doctrine of qualified immunity, which in this case means that if a law enforcement officer acted reasonably under the circumstances, he or she cannot be held liable.
The court generally agreed. In a May order that partially granted summary judgment, the court ruled that Stevenson and Overweg were entitled to qualified immunity, but that further information was needed to rule on Kasselder's claim against the city.
The case officially ended on Sept. 28, when Thimsen and Kasselder's attorney, Stephanie Pochop, filed a joint motion to dismiss the case, and U.S. District Judge Karen E. Schreier ordered the dismissal that same day.
"Stephanie Pochop, who is a good attorney, said, 'We'll dismiss the lawsuit if (Kasselder) can get her son's property back,'" Thimsen said. "It was in evidence. And since the case was over and DCI was done investigating, there's no need to hold onto his property anymore."
Thimsen said he's worked on many fatal and officer-involved shooting cases with a variety of law enforcement agencies and that he had a feeling from the beginning, based on the facts of the case, that it would be dismissed due to qualified immunity.
Overweg said that though the case is over and he and Mitchell police were not penalized by a court for Meyer's death or the incidents that led to it, the impact and rarity of officer-involved fatal shootings are not taken lightly.
Another officer-involved fatal shooting in Mitchell occurred on Nov. 8, 2014, when an officer shot a woman who reportedly barricaded herself into her hotel room and was threatening to shoot herself and others.
"These are some of the most difficult cases that police officers have to deal with," he said.
One of the prosecution's arguments in the case revolved around Stevenson's body camera, which did not record the struggle between Stevenson and Meyer. Stevenson no longer works for the Mitchell Police Division.
Overweg told The Daily Republic in 2015 that the camera did not record because an officer who used the camera previously had not cleared the data on it.
In an affidavit filed in January of this year, Stevenson stated he was unaware that the camera wasn't recording, he was worried that Meyer would shoot him during the struggle and he did not have time to identify himself as a law enforcement officer before Meyer moved toward the gun.
In February, documents filed by Pochop disputed Stevenson's account, citing an investigation by the Department of Criminal Investigation that found that there were no files in the camera, and that, "If true, this would create an inference that some reason other than a full file is the reason that Stevenson video of the fatal shooting is not available."
Thimsen responded by saying that although the camera was empty at the time it was investigated, that didn't necessarily discount Stevenson's story.
"After Officer Stevenson was informed that his camera had not been properly downloaded at the time of the incident, Sgt. (Joel) Reinesch of the Mitchell Police Department downloaded and saved the files," Thimsen wrote.
Overweg told The Daily Republic that at the time, Mitchell police were only just starting to use body cameras, and each officer did not have their own. Data from cameras then had to be manually downloaded.
"We were kind of in the trial phase then. We had cameras we were passing from one officer to another, from shift to shift, because we did not have it all fully rolled out yet," Overweg said.
Since then, a donation from a local service club allowed the department to purchase more cameras and a charging and docking system, and the cameras are now in the process of being updated again. Officers are supposed to manually turn on their body cameras whenever they dealing with the general public, and they are not able to manipulate the data, which is now automatically downloaded.
Overweg also noted that there is no law that requires law enforcement officers to wear body cameras at all.
"What people have to also keep in mind is they are an electronic tool; they are a component that can go bad at any time," Overweg said. "We're reliant on batteries, on electrical circuits, on everything. They only have so long of a lifespan on them. They work most of the time."