The family of Palo Alto teacher Kyle Hart has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Redwood City and members of its police department for the December 2018 officer-involved shooting that mortally wounded Hart while he was having a mental health crisis.
Hart's wife, Kristin Hart, filed the lawsuit on behalf of her slain husband, herself and their two children in the U.S. District Court for Northern California on Tuesday, April 13, after nearly two years of fruitless negotiations and failed mediation with the city, she said during a press conference on Wednesday.
The lawsuit asks for an unspecified sum of money for damages and accuses the police department of violating the late Greene Middle School teacher's civil rights, causing his wrongful death and being negligent. Kyle Hart suffered severe emotional and physical pain, and Kristin Hart and their children have experienced severe emotional distress as a result of the police officers' actions, the lawsuit claims.
Responding officers did not use any de-escalation attempts and officers allegedly failed to administer emergency medical care. Instead, they handcuffed Hart and left him on the ground to bleed out, according to the lawsuit.
The city of Redwood City, police Chief Dan Mulholland, and Officers Roman Gomez and Leila Velez are named as defendants.
Kyle Hart was an English teacher for nine years at Greene and had taken a paternity leave of absence the week before his death, during which time their new daughter was born, said Kristin Hart, who is also a teacher in the Palo Alto Unified School District.
Kristin Hart called the Redwood City Police Department on Dec. 10, 2018, after her husband began cutting himself with a knife at the family home. He was not harming anyone else, she told dispatchers. However, he was shot by an officer three times within 29 seconds of their arrival in his backyard, according to the lawsuit.
He had been taking medication for anxiety for some time, which was largely managed with the medication and exercise, but he had never exhibited any kind of aggression, Kristin Hart said during the press conference. He had recently started a new type of medication, however, and the suicidal behavior came on very rapidly. She doesn't know if the medication caused his new symptoms, she said.
When Gomez and Velez arrived at the Hart home, they went along the side of the house to the backyard. Sixteen seconds passed between the time Kristin Hart directed them to the backyard and when they fired the first shot, according to a press release from civil rights attorney John Burris. Kyle Hart was standing about 40 feet away from the officers with a deep cut in his neck. He was allegedly still holding the knife he used to cut himself, and the officers yelled at him to drop the knife. The police department claims that Velez deployed her Taser. The officers determined the Taser had not worked, and Gomez then fired his weapon at Kyle Hart, killing him within those 16 seconds.
"Beyond shouting at a man in the midst of a mental health crisis and attempting to Taser him while he walked in their direction, the officers made no attempts to de-escalate the situation. Instead, from behind a table that was between the officers and Kyle Hart, they shot him three times, killing him. Officer Gomez fired five times in total, missing Kyle twice -- those two bullets ended up in the apartment building directly behind the Hart’s home," Burris said.
“The family called the police to save Kyle’s life but not for them to take it. This case screams for de-escalation. The officers failed to follow generally accepted police practices when confronting a suicidal person by creating time and distance. The officers had no plan consequently Mr. Hart is dead,” Burris said.
Burris said during Wednesday's press conference that he and Kristin Hart hope to change the system. A separate team of mental health professionals is needed to respond to crisis calls, he said. Police backup would be part of the call, when weapons are present, but officers would not be the primary responders.
Attorney Benjamin Niesenbaum, of the Law Offices of John L. Burris, said the officers had a path by which they could retreat to reassess the situation but did not take it, instead using excessive force.
Kristen Hart said, “Kyle was the rare person who could strike up a conversation with anyone he met, from waiters at restaurants to the awkward tween at a family event. Kyle was kind and truly interested in the people around him. He was my best friend and a wonderful husband. We made the most of our summers, traveling and camping. He was down-to-earth and very caring. He loved to make me handmade pasta and we enjoyed listening to the summertime Friday night concerts in the town square. He was a truly devoted father, the kind that’s in the pool at baby swim lessons and a regular at the neighborhood park. Kyle was a sick person in need of help, and rather than provide the help they are trained to give, the police killed him. Kyle deserved better; the citizens of Redwood City deserve better. Kyle will be forever missed by our family and his community.”
Her family "has suffered great trauma and I am now a single mother raising two children in a very expensive area," she said.
"Thus far, there has been no acknowledgement that mental health response is an area that the Redwood City police need to improve. What I would love to see come out of this is a comprehensive approach for how Redwood Citypolice respond to a person with a mental crisis," she said.
The case is one of many examples in which Redwood City police have allegedly engaged in excessive use of force, the lawsuit alleges. In a 2019 case, Redwood City police officers are accused of holding an unarmed, naked woman and her 15-year-old son at gunpoint in their own home during the execution of a search warrant. A 2010 case accused five Redwood City officers of tackling a man to the ground while he was in the midst of a diabetic shock. The officers used pepper spray, nunchakus and a steel baton on the man during his medical emergency.
Redwood City police officers killed Ramzi Saad in August 2018 while he was in the midst of a mental health crisis. The officers used Tasers on Saad multiple times and pinned him to the ground with three officers on top of him.
In a statement, the City Attorney's Office in Redwood City said: "The loss of life is always tragic, as is the case with the death of Mr. Hart. City staff have appreciated the opportunity to work with the Hart family in the past and to listen to their recommendations on policing policies. In addition, the city recently approved a pilot program with San Mateo County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services for a mental health crisis partnership program. While the city has yet to be served with any lawsuit, it is the city’s practice to not comment on active litigation."