$560K settlement for mother of woman fatally shot by Prairie Village police

PRAIRIE VILLAGE, Kan. - The mother of a mentally disturbed woman who Prairie Village police shot to death in March 2010 has received a settlement of more than half a million dollars, 41 Action News has learned.

The payment of more than $560,000 last November in the death of 47-year-old Susan Stuckey was made by the city's insurance carrier, said Quinn Bennion, Prairie Village city administrator.

"It was a decision by the insurance company, and I have no further comment," Bennion told KSHB on Monday.

The city council knew about the settlement but did not vote to settle the case, Bennion said, because the insurance company was handling the case.

Beverly Stewart, Stuckey's mother filed a federal lawsuit almost two years ago. 

In the lawsuit, Stewart argued police should have used non-lethal weapons like tear-gas, smoke canisters or bean bag rounds. Officers used excessive force and were inadequately trained to respond to a critical incident involving a mentally ill person, the lawsuit said.

A review of pretrial filings by 41 Action News indicate the city's case may have been in trouble because of serious questions raised by Stewart about the credibility of the city's key witnesses' testimony.

On Nov. 18, a filing by Stewart said the parties in the case "have agreed in principal on the settlement terms and are now working through the agreement. The parties believe that the final agreement will be worked out in the coming days."

The case was dismissed Dec. 5 without details about the settlement.

Stuckey's mother told 41 Action News she was pleased with the settlement. She had considered going to trial, but worried about the drain on her family.

Cheryl Pilate, Stewart's attorney, said Stuckey's death was tragic and avoidable.

"She was not a criminal but was a deeply troubled, mentally ill woman who was afraid to leave her apartment," Pilate told 41 Action News. "Her death serves as a tragic example of what happens when under trained, under prepared tactical officers proceed on a mission with little understanding of the person they are trying to apprehend or how to best accomplish that goal.

"Without question, Ms. Stuckey's violent and unnecessary death should provoke the City of Prairie Village to undertake a thorough review of the incident, including all of the actions taken and the decisions made by its officers and commanders," Pilate said.

SUICIDE BY COP

Almost four years ago, Stuckey called police dispatchers in Overland Park and Leawood, demanding they bring her cigarettes and saying they should come armed because she wanted to commit "suicide by cop," according to court filings.

Police departments are familiar with suicide by cop, in which a mentally disturbed person deliberately acts in a threatening way to provoke police into lethal actions.

The departments notified Prairie Village police. Fifteen officers, most dressed in riot gear, were sent to the Kenilworth Apartment Homes where Stuckey lived.

In days leading to Stuckey's death, Stuckey's mental health problems had been deteriorating and she had made numerous 911 calls to Prairie Village police.

The police and Johnson County mental health workers had conducted "welfare visits" to her apartment several times. She had argued angrily with the police, health workers and neighbors.

After calling police departments to say she wanted to commit suicide by cop, she called childhood friend Elizabeth Alex, a former 41 Action News anchor who was out of the country at the time, and left a voice-mail.

"The Prairie Village police are at my door, and I'm going to die, I'm sure, but I'm going to knock some heads off before I do," she said.

When police knocked on her door, she refused to let them inside and would only talk to them through the closed front door.

Police said they had planned to forcibly remove her from her apartment, take her to the University of Kansas Medical Center and have her committed involuntarily.

While police were getting in position, stationing two snipers on roofs to watch her through her windows and ordering residents to evacuate their apartments, they had untrained officers negotiate with her for two hours to try to get her to surrender, court filings said.

She told Officer Adam Taylor she wanted him to kill her, but he told her that was not an option.

“We're here to help you, Susan," he said. He promised to contact her mother, but never did.

Police contacted Johnson County Mental Health about the situation and were told a counselor could come to the scene, but police declined their help until they could remove her from the apartment.

Officers used a battering ram to knock down her front door, which fell into the foyer on top of a barrier that Stuckey had built with furniture.

Sgt. Byron Roberson climbed over the door first and was

met by Stuckey, who was swinging a baseball bat. He quickly disarmed her. She grabbed a broom and Roberson took that away, too.

He and another officer attempted to shoot Stuckey with tasers, but her baggy clothes deflected the electrodes as she retreated into the living room.

In the living room, she reached for a knife. Roberson said in court filings he told her not to pick it up. But Roberson, who was wearing a helmet and protective gear, said she threw it at him. It hit his armor or the wall and bounced to the floor.

Roberson, who was still in the foyer, said in a deposition he feared the knife would hit him in the face and kill him.

He shot her three times, hitting her in the neck, the back and grazing her arm.

Stuckey stepped toward the couch, collapsed and died.

THE LAWSUIT

Stewart, who learned about her daughter's death from a news broadcast, wanted the details of how her daughter died. But that would prove extremely difficult.

Kansas is one of the only states in the country that withholds most police records, arrest and search warrants and investigations from victims and the public.

The shooting was investigated by the Overland Park Police Officer-Involved Shooting Investigation Team, led by Col. Simon Happer.

Happer indicated to Stewart and her attorney that the shooting was justifiable. He would not give her the names of the officers involved in the shooting nor would he give her a copy of his report from the shooting investigation, according to court filings.

Prairie Village police also refused to give records to Stewart.

A month after the shooting, Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe said the officers use of force was justified under Kansas law because of Stucky's threatening behavior. His office had conducted its own investigation, and Howe said no charges would be filed. He would not release his report to Stewart or the media.

An autopsy also found Stewart had imbibed alcohol and taken drugs; painkillers, muscle relaxants and antidepressants. Stewart suffered not only from depression, but from spinal stenosis, a painful affliction, her mother said.

Since the shooting, Priarie Village Police Chief Wes Jordan has continued to say the officers’ actions were justified. No officers were disciplined and no remedial training was provided. Sgt. Roberson has received two valor awards in connection with the Stuckey incident.

As the statute of limitations was running out, Stewart hired attorney Cheryl Pilate, who filed open records requests with the agencies that again refused to release records.

Two years after her daughter's death, Stewart got a hearing to ask a judge to open the records.
The city and police argued that the investigation was still ongoing and that Stewart only wanted the records so she could file a lawsuit.

After reviewing the investigation records, Judge David W. Hauber said he did not believe releasing them would interfere with any law enforcement action or that anyone's life would be placed in jeopardy.

"Releasing these records may result in a lawsuit, it may result in criticism, but that's not the basis for which the Court needs to make a determination that these records should be withheld," Judge Hauber said, and ordered them open for public inspection.

A month later, Stewart filed a federal lawsuit saying her daughter's civil rights had been violated.

She alleged that police "grossly violated widely accepted law enforcement standards" and "failed to use a trained negotiator or trained mental health care professional."

"As a result of Defendants' wrongful actions, Ms. Stuckey suffered extreme terror, severe pain, emotional trauma and death under violent and tragic circumstances," court filings said.

Filings weeks prior to the settlement brought into question the city's two expert witnesses, Steve Ijames, a nationally known expert in the use of less lethal force, and David Mouille, an expert in neuropsychology.

Stewart was arguing that major parts of their testimony should not be allowed.

In his report to the court, Ijames said police were justified in shooting Stuckey. But Stewart's motions argued that Ijames has testified and written papers and reports in support of non-lethal weapons, because they reduce the potential for death and serious injury over more confrontational tactics. That body of work is used by law enforcement across the country. His court report, Stewart argued, conflicted with his numerous papers, reports and instructions.

Mouille's report said Stuckey had a death wish. But Stewart argued that Mouille's diagnosis of Stuckey at the time of her death came from information provided by police and without benefit of having talked to her. Stewart argued there was no feasible way for Mouille to know that Stuckey had a death wish, and his opinions are unreliable and should not be admitted before a jury, the court motion said.

The case was settled without response from the defendants.

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