It’s only right wrongful death lawsuit reinstated

It shouldn’t have taken a three-judge federal appeals court to see what was obvious to most: Sheriff’s Deputy Jonathan Lozada had plenty of non-lethal options when he shot and killed Susan Teel – a suicidal, 62-year-old woman – in her Vero Beach home in July 2017.

Fortunately, though, the Miami-based U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals possessed the vision, wisdom and common sense to overrule a lower-court judge’s puzzling decision last year to dismiss a $10-million wrongful-death lawsuit filed against Lozada and the Sheriff’s Office by Teel’s husband, Dudley, a local emergency room doctor.

In a 22-page opinion, the appeals court judges rejected U.S. District Court Judge Donald Middlebrooks’ summary-judgment ruling that Lozada’s decision to shoot Teel three times was “reasonable under the circumstances” because she was moving toward the deputy with a butcher’s knife in her hands.

Instead, the judges reversed Middlebrooks’ ruling and sent the civil case back to district court, writing that Lozada’s use of deadly force was “wholly unnecessary” because Teel was “not suspected of committing any crime” and the “purpose of the family’s 911 call was to keep her alive.”

She posed a threat only to herself, the judges’ opinion states.

“Yet (Deputy) Lozada drew his gun, even before he encountered Mrs. Teel, pointed the gun at her before she came near him and fired at her without warning,” the judges wrote. “Mrs. Teel was not pointing the knife at (Deputy) Lozada or charging at him.

“By his own testimony, she was coming toward him slowly, and he had the opportunity to retreat beyond her reach,” they added, “but he chose to shoot her instead.”

In other words, Lozada knew he had alternatives, such as de-escalating what was a volatile situation by calmly backing away, retreating into a nearby sitting room or down the stairs, where he could seek assistance from a backup deputy.

He could’ve disabled her with his Taser or fended her off with pepper spray, both of which were at his disposal. If necessary, a trained deputy should’ve been able to overpower a 5-foot-2, 118-pound woman old enough to collect Social Security – yes, even if she was wielding a knife.

Lozada did none of the above.

For those not familiar with the story: Shortly after 8 p.m. on July 26, 2017, Lozada responded to a 911 call for help at the Teels’ Carriage Lake home, where Teel had attempted to commit suicide by slashing her wrists.

According to Sheriff’s Office reports, Lozada spoke briefly with Teel’s husband – the couple was married for 40 years – who told him his wife was upstairs “trying to kill herself with a knife,” prompting the deputy to pull his gun as he climbed the stairs.

It was in a second-floor bedroom that Lozada, who was a deputy for five years at the time of the incident, confronted Teel. The initial Sheriff’s Office report stated that the woman, believed to have been under the influence of alcohol, was holding a knife and taunted the deputy before she “lunged” at him.

That’s when Lozada pulled the trigger.

The next day, Sheriff Deryl Loar defended Lozada’s actions, saying the deputy was acting in self-defense and had no choice.

“The deputy did exactly what he was trained to do” in a potentially deadly confrontation, Loar said, adding that it was an “unfortunate situation all the way around.”

And it was.

It was unfortunate for Teel, whose personal torment – whatever the source – ended her life. It was unfortunate for Lozada, who surely did not intend to kill anyone when he climbed those stairs. It was unfortunate for all of us who are left to question whether our sheriff’s deputies are equipped to handle such incidents.

Did Lozada need to shoot the woman three times? Wouldn’t one gunshot wound have stopped her? Why didn’t he try to merely wound her?

“We’re not trained to shoot the legs,” Loar responded to a question at a news conference.

Law enforcement officers will tell you that they are trained to shoot to kill – not to disable – which is why police should draw their guns only when deadly force is necessary. That’s why the job is so dangerous. That’s why more emphasis must be put on training. That’s why not everyone should be a cop.

The hard truth is, Lozada found himself in a difficult, fast-moving and unpredictable situation that required poise under pressure, and he choked. He didn’t need to use deadly force against Teel. He didn’t need to shoot her three times, or at all.

She didn’t need to die.

Fact is, Lozada panicked and made a split-second decision when he didn’t need to – because, according to court records, Teel was 6 to 10 feet away and moving toward him slowly – not lunging – when the deputy fired.

That doesn’t mean he should go to jail. The grand jury made the right call in January 2018, when it declined to indict him. The deputy made mistakes which had terrible consequences, but he wasn’t criminally reckless.

But his actions were wrong and, as the appeals court ruled, Teel’s husband should get his day in court, where a jury can determine the liability of Lozada and the Sheriff’s Office that trained him, defended him and continues to employ him.

“Isn’t it time we have deputies trained to handle these cases more like ‘The Negotiator’ and less like ‘Rambo?’” said Guy Rubin, the Stuart-based attorney who represents the Teel family, which he said called 911 for mental-health help and got a “cowboy cop who changed their lives forever because he was not suited for the job and panicked under the pressure of the moment.”

There’s no way to know what would’ve happened if Lozada had diffused the situation by retreating and waiting for the assistance he needed.

Teel might’ve run back into the bedroom, locked the door and finished what she had started. Or she might’ve re-thought her actions, put down the knife and waited to talk to someone who could help her.

Lozada’s best option – the only way he could both defend himself and ensure that Teel didn’t kill herself – would’ve been to deploy his Taser, which almost certainly would have resulted in the woman dropping the knife.

He probably wishes he had.

She likely would still be alive, and neither he nor the Sheriff’s Office would be facing a $10-million lawsuit an appeals court rightly said should go forward.

This wasn’t suicide by cop – because Teel didn’t call the cops or commit suicide.

This was a wrongful death, and the deputy and Sheriff’s Office should face the consequences.

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