Bedford Heights jail officers can't be held liable for mentally-ill man's death, appeals court says

Omar Arrington-BeyFile photo  CINCINNATI, Ohio -- A federal appeals court panel said Friday that no Bedford Heights police officers should be held legally responsible for the death of a 38-year-old man who was held in an isolation cell for nine...

Bedford Heights jail officers can't be held liable for mentally-ill man's death, appeals court says

Omar Arrington-BeyFile photo 

CINCINNATI, Ohio -- A federal appeals court panel said Friday that no Bedford Heights police officers should be held legally responsible for the death of a 38-year-old man who was held in an isolation cell for nine hours and then strapped to a chair during a psychotic episode.

The ruling from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is a reversal from a Cleveland federal judge's decision, which said not only could police officers be held liable in Omar Arrington-Bey's death in 2013, but the city as well for failing to train its employees.

In a 10-page opinion authored by Judge Jeffrey Sutton, the three-judge panel ruled there is no case law that would require officers to take an inmate to a hospital after exhibiting the type of behavior that Arrington-Bey showed, which ranged from rambling and raving to being violent.

Officers could not foresee that Arrington-Bey's behavior, attributed to a psychological breakdown, would lead to his death, Sutton wrote.

"Police officers face tough judgment calls about what to do with the mentally ill," Sutton wrote. "Arrestees do not normally arrive at jail toting their medical records. Psychiatric problems do not always manifest themselves with clarity. And not even clear psychiatric problems always reveal their potential for serious harm -- as here a heart attack."

(You can read the full opinion here or at the bottom of this story.)

The decision mark the end for the case, though attorneys for the family said they would ask to have the case heard by the full panel of appeals court judges.

Arrington-Bey, a former Shaker Heights High School wrestler, was arrested on June 21, 2013 after acting out at a Lowe's hardware store on Miles Road.

Officers found a bottle of pills in his pockets. Arrington-Bey told police he had the pills for a psychiatric condition and that he had not taken his medication for days, according to court filings.

Arrington-Bey was agitated and continued to act out as officers held him in a jail isolation cell, the opinion says.

Corrections officer Jeffrey Mudra took Arrington-Bey out of his cell after several hours to make a phone call. Arrington-Bey grabbed Mudra, threw him to the floor and choked him, the opinion says.

Officer Cheryl Sindone tried to intervene but Arrington-Bey pinned and choked her. Officers then put him in the restraint chair, court filings state.

Officers noticed something was wrong after they strapped Arrington-Bey to the chair. His pulse had dropped, according to the opinion. They tried to resuscitate him, and he was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Arrington-Bey suffered a "sudden cardiac death in association with physical altercation and bipolar disease," according to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office. The death was labeled a homicide.

U.S. District Judge Patricia Gaughan ruled in March 2016 that there was evidence the officers were indifferent to Arrington-Bey's medical needs. She said a jury should also decide whether the city should be held liable, because officers testified in depositions that the city rarely provided mental health-training for police, if at all.

The appeals court disagreed. Sutton wrote that there are no other cases that dictate how an officer should act if a person is not, say, suicidal or at risk for having a seizure.

"Even if the jail officers knew that Omar was bipolar and delusional, no clearly established law required them to do more than what they did ..." Sutton wrote.

The three-judge panel suggested it may be wise for cities to look at revising their policies to prevent a death like Arrington-Bey's to happen again.

Attorneys Terry Gilbert and Jacqueline Greene, who represent Arrington-Bey's mother, said in a statement that "any reasonable police or correctional officer would have seen that Omar was going through a psychological breakdown and needed help."

They said they would likely ask the full 6th Circuit to re-examine the case.

"To suggest that these officers acted reasonably by taking Omar to jail and then locking him in a room for (nine) hours and doing nothing is a sad commentary on the failure of government and the legal system to acknowledge such a basic human right," the attorneys said.

Jim Climer, an attorney representing Bedford Heights, said he has respect for Gaughan and Gilbert but agrees with the 6th Circuit's decision.

The jail closed shortly after Arrington-Bey's death, but for unrelated reasons, Climer said.

The Ohio Attorney General's Bureau of Criminal Investigation launched a probe into Arrington-Bey's death but none of the officers faced charges.

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