CASPER, Wyo. (K2 Radio)

(Editorial comments are opinions of the author)

A federal judge ruled a civil lawsuit for wrongful death can proceed on the grounds of improper training and denied a request for dismissal. Judge Scott Skavdahl responded to a motion to dismiss filed by the City of Casper, Casper Police Department, and specifically the two named officers in the shooting and several unnamed police officials.  

Plaintiff’s attorney, Todd Hambrick claimed “deliberate indifference” in the shooting death of his client’s son, Douglas Oneyear, 36.

In his written response, Skavdahl stated that Hambrick, “has alleged, and supported with factual underpinnings, that the officers here used unconstitutional excessive force in shooting Mr. Oneyear and they did so pursuant to their training.” Stop the bus. These are strong words. 

What does this mean for law enforcement?

The February lawsuit accused the Casper Police Department, the City of Casper, and the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy (WLEA) of failing to properly train officers and implement policies that would have prevented Oneyear’s death, according to court paperwork. The state law enforcement academy has since been removed from the lawsuit.

In original paperwork filed in federal court, Hambrick claimed the academy did not properly train the officers, which he articulated contributed to Oneyear’s wrongful death.

According to the Wyoming Attorney General’s arguments,  WLEA cannot be named as a defendant because the academy has not waived immunity granted it by the 11th Amendment.  The state’s attorneys also argued that Hambrick’s suit only applies to people, not government agencies. Yet, despite these arguments the City of Casper still remains on the defendant list, while WLEA has been dropped.

The attorneys for the city and police officers filed a response to the plaintiff’s filing which stated Hambrick did not properly follow the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act. The police officers also argued in their response filings that they acted “in good faith and based upon good cause, consistent with federal and Wyoming law.”

Skavdahl’s ruling only means the case can continue to trial, not that it will prevail. However, the grounds of the case are perplexing. How much training is enough for self-defense?

This case could set up unprecedented movements on justified shooting wrongful death suits. Even if an officer is criminally cleared on a police shooting, he or she is not immune to civil lawsuits of wrongful death. This case points of pinning fault on the officers, city, and agency. Lack of training is a strange argument in this case. Is this going to write new regulations of how much training is necessary to use self-defense?

However,  the federal judge was convinced the trial should proceed and that the complaint was “plausible on its face.”

Self-defense is going to be challenged in civil suit as a training issue.

First, a little backstory is necessary to understand why this lawsuit is one to watch.

Officers responded to two 911 complaints which ultimately led to the fatal shooting of Douglas Oneyear. The first call dispatched officers on February 25, 2019, at 11:30 PM to an area where a woman complainant described a man swinging an object at her as she drove by.

Officers Schlager and Meyers were dispatched to an east-side location to look for the suspect male. At the time of the call, Officer Schlager had approximately 3 years on the department, and Officer Meyers had 2 years of service.  

The suspect continued his deviant behavior in pubic areas on the street. His behavior scared and intimated citizens. Picture the time of night and the circumstances. Frankly, scary is an understatement to innocents when a man is brandishing a large sword when unprovoked.

The second 911 caller was a clerk at a local convenience store which is located near the area of the first call. The clerk claimed a man came into the establishment with a sword and threatened to kill her.

On February 25, 2018, at approximately 11:39 pm, Officers Schlager and Meyers encountered Douglas Oneyear wielding a sword in the city streets of Casper, Wyoming, near 15th Street on the east side of town.

Public statement by Chief of Police paints a clear picture of the events.

Chief McPheeters of the Casper Police Department released the following timeline based upon dash cam, witness statements, surveillance video to the public which was featured in a K2 Radio news story by Nick Learned, reporter:

Officer Schlager got out of his vehicle and went to speak to the man, later identified as Oneyear. Meanwhile, Officer Meyers was pulling his patrol vehicle up behind where Schlager had parked.

Three seconds after getting out of his car, dash-cam video from Meyers’s vehicle shows Schlager retreat from Oneyear, who police say advanced on Schlager.

One second later, Schlager draws his gun and orders Oneyear to drop his weapon. On the dash-cam video, Schlager can be heard yelling, “Drop the sword! Drop the sword now!”

Within the next three seconds Meyers exits his patrol vehicle and declares via radio that they have a male “at gunpoint.”

In the next second, Oneyear continues to advance on Schlager, who continues to retreat. Police say that Oneyear, “without any emotion,” told Schlager, “I know you don’t have a f—— gun.”

The video shows officers continue to tell Oneyear to drop the sword. Police say, he continues to advance “steadfastly” toward the officers.

Roughly 11 seconds after Schlager first got out of his patrol vehicle, both officers fire their weapons to stop Oneyear from advancing with the sword.

McPheeters stated five shell casings were recovered from the scene. Two fatal rounds hit Oneyear directly in the spine, McPheeters said, causing “instantaneous” death.

Officers can be seen on video making efforts to administer medical attention to Oneyear following the shooting, before EMTs arrived. ” (Nick Learned, K2 Radio, April, 19, 2018) 

Subsequently, video is available online for access to watch some of the events in real time. 

This is legal action to pay attention to and monitor for court outcomes. 

Proper procedures for a police shooting investigation were followed by the agency and subsequently reviewed by Natrona County District Attorney, Michael Blonigen. Ultimately, Blonigen found no factual basis to file any criminal charges against the officers.

Consequently, it is common knowledge in the criminal justice world that being exonerated of a crime in a police shooting does not exempt law enforcement from civil suits. However, grounds for this case moving forward is alarming and sets up a slippery slope for police officers. 

Apparently, Hambrick left out that complying with police commands and refraining from threatening people with weapons was the direct action leading to Oneyear’s death. It is a tragedy. Yet, the police answered calls for help and were left with no options. Self-defense should not equal dollar signs for victims’ families and legal bindings for officers. 

The outcome of this trial will be one to watch. It is disturbing when the defense of yourself and/or others renders a lawsuit. Is this suit about policy change, good intentions, or monetary gains? Put this lawsuit on your list to monitor.  It could change how we police.