Police are trained to deal with unruly suspects -- but what if the person in question is in the midst of a medical emergency rather than resisting arrest? This question was at the heart of a lawsuit against the City of Aurora filed after cops responding to a call pertaining to Rickey Burrell broke his wrist even though he was already unconscious after suffering a seizure. The lawsuit and details about the $100,000 settlement and more below.
Unfortunately, Burrell died before the settlement was reached, for reasons unrelated to the incident. But his attorney, Mari Newman, believes the case will serve as part of his legacy.
The morning of December 18, 2010, according to the suit, Burrell was feeling poorly after returning to his Aurora home after attending Bible study and a choir rehearsal. He headed to his room to take a nap, but when Evelyn King, his longtime partner, went in to check on him, she discovered that he was incoherent and having a seizure.
King immediately phoned 911, and even though she made it clear Burrell was having a medical crisis, the first people to arrive were a pair of Aurora police officers, Darren Chamberland and Darryl Huntsman, followed by a third cop, Brandon Rinnan.
Prior to the officers' arrival, Burrell had alternated between walking around the room and lying on his stomach on his bed. However, the suit says he was in the latter position when the cops entered the bedroom. He was clad only in his underwear, which was stained with urine (a result of a bladder-control loss caused by the seizure), and appeared to be unconscious.
Nevertheless, one of the three officers allegedly jumped on Burrell's back, placed his knee in the middle of it, and then jerked the man's arm behind him in order to handcuff him.
At that point, Burrell returned to his senses long enough to cry out and ask the cops to stop hurting him -- a plea also screamed by King.
In response, the officers took Burrell outside, even though he was still clad in only his urine-stained underwear and it was wintertime. Only afterward did they remove his handcuffs and place him on a gurney manned by Aurora Fire Department personnel who'd also responded to the scene.
Burrell was transported to the Medical Center of Aurora South, where it was discovered he had a fractured right wrist plus tweaks to previous back and shoulder injuries. The suit also notes his emotional distress as a result of being dragged nearly naked from his home in front of family members and neighbors curious about the emergency crews. He was never charged with a crime.
The lawsuit goes on to argue that the City of Aurora "has created, fostered, and tolerated an environment and culture of law enforcement brutality and deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of citizens and residents, including its response to medical emergencies involving seizures" -- and this last assertion framed the eventual settlement.
In the end, attorney Newman says, the officers' extreme reaction to Burrell wasn't motivated by "what he was doing, but on their fear of what he could do" if he began seizing again. "And that was simply based on their inadequate training. What we learned was, if they had been better trained, it is very likely the officers would not have made the same mistake."
Newman points out that "the police said they did do training" on the topic. However, "during the course of the litigation, we discovered that the officers had no idea how to recognize seizures or deal with people having seizures, which was a very important part of the case for us."
Indeed, the settlement goes beyond the $100,000 reward to a requirement that "the Aurora Police Department properly train officers, and then test them to make sure that they have retained the knowledge and knew how to use it when they came into contact with people having seizures."
At first blush, this skill might seem to be needed only rarely. But that's not the case, Newman emphasizes. While pushing the lawsuit forward, she reached out to Epilepsy Foundation of Colorado executive director Gail Pundsack for an expert opinion about the frequency of such reactions, "and we learned that one in four people will suffer a seizure during the course of their lifetime," Newman says. "So this isn't some infrequent occurrence. Police come into contact with people having seizures very frequently. There's really a critical need for first responders, which is often police, to know how to deal appropriately with people suffering medical emergencies -- and not treat them like criminals."