NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A family member is suing the Metropolitan Government and two Metro Nashville Police Department officers for over $8 million following the death of a pregnant woman who attorneys say was “experiencing a severe mental health event.”
The lawsuit filed on Oct. 12 in Davidson County alleges that police “made no efforts to prevent (the woman) from engaging in further acts of self-harm” before she reportedly committed suicide by shooting herself in the chest.
According to the family’s attorney, Daniel Horwitz, the lawsuit was moved to federal court last week.
Police respond to reports of gunshot, domestic disturbance
Police responded to the family’s home in Bellevue in the early morning hours of October 26, 2021. According to the initial police report, there had been reports of a gunshot and a domestic disturbance at the home. At the time, the woman was 11 weeks pregnant with her second child.
By the time police arrived, the woman had already shot off a substantial portion of her own finger, which was noted in the police report. The report said she injured herself while struggling over a gun with her husband during a dispute.
Her husband believed she may have been trying to poison him with carbon monoxide, and when he confronted her, the report said she pointed a gun at him. According to police, the couple was in the process of going through a divorce.
He wrestled the gun away from her and brought her to a neighbor’s house, where he asked them to call the police and an ambulance, according to the report. When officers arrived, the lawsuit said she was still “safely restrained” at the neighbor’s house.
Body camera footage obtained by attorneys further indicates that she was in an “extreme state of mental distress,” according to the lawsuit. As one of the first officers to arrive approached the home, the woman can be heard screaming, “I just wanted to die, just let me!”
At the time, she was laying on the ground outside, covered in a blanket and visibly sobbing. Police took custody of the woman, but the lawsuit said they did “did not restrain her” or make any efforts to locate or secure the gun she had used to shoot herself.
During a two-minute dispatch transmitted after he arrived on scene, a second officer can be heard saying, “She’s got a gunshot wound to her finger,” before communicating that the scene was safe, stating “medical are cleared to come in.”
Police interviewed the woman’s husband after taking her into custody and separating them. At which point, the second officer was instructed to “grab her” and not let her back inside her house. However, according to the lawsuit, he still failed to restrain the woman.
As the woman and the second officer were walking to an ambulance, the police report states she “took off running” back to her house, where her husband had, according to the lawsuit and body camera footage, told police the gun was located almost immediately after they arrived.
The police report said the officer pursued the woman to the door after she took off. A few seconds later he heard a gunshot, according to the report. After entering the home, police said they found the bedroom door locked.
Police used a knife to cut through the screen on the bedroom window. After raising the window and moving the blinds, police said they saw the woman lying on the bedroom floor. According to the lawsuit, she had fatally shot herself in the chest.
The police report said she was taken to Vanderbilt Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
Lawsuit claims police report ‘incomplete’, records concealed
According to the lawsuit, the officer later acknowledged that he “had not attempted to run after (the woman),” muddying the statement in the initial police report. In body camera footage, he can be seen following the woman to the door and stopping as she enters inside.
“I don’t know if I have enough to go in,” the officer says over his radio. He enters the home only after hearing a gunshot. Later on in the footage, the officer can be heard telling other officers at the scene, “If I would have ran after she would have still beat me inside.”
The lawsuit claims the officer’s “slow” pursuit led to her death, stating the woman “had time to trip and stumble at the door to her residence, stabilize, keep going into the house, get to the bedroom where the gun was located, and lock herself in the room without any interference.”
In addition to “incomplete” reports, the lawsuit states the Metropolitan Government undertook “affirmative efforts” to conceal records of the incident by denying access to records based on the “false claim” that the matter related to an open criminal case.
According to documents provided by the family’s attorney, a public records request for body camera footage and other records of the incident was submitted and denied in Dec. 2021. Attorneys obtained the records after writing to the Metropolitan Department of Law.
In a Dec. 15, 2021, letter Horwitz writes, “(The woman’s) death is not an open case, of course. She is deceased. The MNPD has never opened a case regarding her death, and it never will. The denial is baseless, and it disappoints me that an entity tasked with upholding the law is so flagrantly violating it.”
According to the lawsuit, all officers who were contacted for information regarding the woman’s death also reported that the Metropolitan Legal Department— which reportedly did not represent any of them individually— had instructed them not to discuss the incident.
The Metro Nashville Police Department deferred any comments on the lawsuit to the Metropolitan Department of Law, which disputed attorneys’ claims in an emailed statement.
“While the circumstances surrounding (the woman’s) death are tragic, the Metropolitan Government disputes the Complaint’s characterization of the events in this case and that any public records were intentionally concealed,” the statement read.
When News 2 asked further questions regarding policies for responding to mental health concerns and whether there was an internal investigation or any disciplinary action taken, the Metropolitain Department of Law replied with another statement.
“The Department of Law rejects many of Plaintiff’s allegations, including that it engaged in any improper conduct concerning (the two officers) during its pre-suit review of this incident. In light of the pending litigation, however, we will not comment further at this time on specific facts and details surrounding the underlying incident,” the statement read.
Psychologist’s assessment of the police response
Dr. Deborah Tyson, a licensed clinical psychologist, was asked by the family’s attorney to review the incident and determine whether the police response was “reckless” or violated MNPD policy.
According to the lawsuit, Tyson identified multiple violations of MNPD policy, including policies regarding investigating and detaining people while responding to incidents involving mental health concerns.
The Metro Nashville Police Department’s 2022 manual states that officers receiving a call on, or “in any way becoming aware of a situation involving a mentally ill individual” are required to make an investigation to determine if that person poses a “substantial likelihood of serious harm” to himself or herself or others.
Officers are not required to make a mental or medical diagnosis, only a “practical common-sense decision” given the circumstances and a set of criteria listed in the manual.
Some of the behaviors that fall under the criteria are if a person threatened or attempted suicide, homicide, or any other violent behavior; or placed others in reasonable fear of violent behavior and serious harm.
“If a determination is made that the individual in question is a ‘mentally ill individual’ and that the individual poses an immediate ‘substantial likelihood of serious harm,’ the officer(s) is authorized by TCA S 33-6-402, to take that person into custody,” the manual states.
Tyson wrote in her assessment the officers “failed to assess (the woman’s) current intent to harm herself or anyone else before allowing her to move.” Tyson also concluded that the officers “engaged in reckless misconduct.”
No disciplinary action was taken against either of the officers, according to the lawsuit.
The woman’s family is asking for $5 million in punitive damages, $2.5 million in compensatory and incidental damages and $300,000 per decedent in compensatory and incidental damages regarding claims under the Governmental Tort Liability Act.
The woman and her unborn child are listed as decedents. According to the lawsuit, the family is also requesting a jury trial. As of this week, no court date had been set other than an initial case management conference.
If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals in the United States.