Susan Neese has been in a constant state of grief and shock for two years now, ever since a West Valley City police sergeant killed her 31-year-old son, who was handcuffed and in a police station.
It started from that first phone call, Neese recalled, when a Salt Lake City officer told her that her son, Michael Chad Breinholt, had died in some sort of altercation.
She said she learned from news reports that a police officer had shot him after her son had been arrested for driving under the influence.
Someone had called 911 saying that Breinholt was intoxicated and needed help, but instead, two officers arrested him and brought him to the police department.
Body camera footage shows Breinholt intoxicated and in police custody for hours before he wrestled with two officers. One screamed that Breinholt was grabbing his holstered gun.
Sgt. Tyler Longman then rushed into the room, said, “You’re about to die, my friend,” and shot Breinholt in the head at near point-blank range.
Neese has now filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that Breinholt was unnecessarily killed and that officers “threatened and antagonized” him before Longman fired the fatal shot.
“Chad’s death was completely preventable,” Neese told The Tribune on Monday. “had there been some protocols and options from the beginning. The 911 call was placed because there was concern for Chad’s mental health and distress. They are not trained to handle somebody in a mental health crisis. This was very clear to me.”
Neese said for so many people, the only option to deal with someone who is in crisis is to call the police. She hopes the lawsuit brings reform and changes to how the police respond to those experiencing a mental health crisis.
“Chad was in distress. He needed help,” his mother said. “His cries for help were ignored.”
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill found the shooting legally justified but called the shooting “disturbing” and said he believes the death could have been prevented.
In the new lawsuit, attorneys for Neese say that while Breinholt did have his hand either on an officer’s duty belt, gun holster or gun handle, it would have been impossible for him to pull out the gun and use it.
“Chad only weighed approximately 125 pounds and his hands were cuffed behind his back,” the lawsuit reads. “He was also highly intoxicated, overmedicated, weakened, delirious, confused, and reacting slowly. It was not difficult for multiple officers to physically push and control Chad.
“By the time Longman announced he was about to kill Chad, [two officers] had already successfully restrained Chad and neutralized any possible threat, which never actually existed, that Chad could obtain any of the officers’ weapons.”
Neese is suing the West Valley City police department, Chief Colleen Jacobs, Longman and several of the other officers who either arrested Breinholt or were in the room during the shooting.
West Valley City officials said in a statement Monday that it was Breinholt’s actions — not their officers — that led to the shooting.
“We look forward to the opportunity to vigorously defend our officer, our police department and our city in this matter,” a statement reads.
Breinholt was arrested on Aug. 23, 2019, after he showed up intoxicated at his girlfriend’s workplace.
Body camera footage shows Breinholt’s girlfriend and a co-worker told Officers Matt Lane and Taylor Atkin that he had taken a lot of pills and his breath smelled like alcohol.
“It seems like he just wants to commit suicide,” his girlfriend told police, later adding: “He just said that he took all those pills so he’ll die.”
The officers arrested Breinholt for DUI. Then they took him to the police department for a more accurate Breathalyzer test. Eventually, Longman came to help the officers fill out an electronic warrant to do a blood draw.
The footage shows a situation that escalated quickly after Breinholt told officers he had a gun in his shoe. He didn’t and the officers didn’t take him seriously, but they attempted to take his shoe from him. When they did, Breinholt, with his hands cuffed behind his back, put his hand on Atkin’s gun. Two officers start wrestling with him, though the gun never leaves the holster.
[More: Read about the unusual shooting of Michael Chad Breinholt and watch a video produced by the PBS series FRONTLINE.]
After Longman heard Atkin yell that Breinholt had his gun, the sergeant experienced tunnel vision, he said in an interview with the D.A.’s office.
He remembered focusing on Atkin’s hip and seeing hands on the gun. He saw what he described as a “jerking motion.”
“He’s fighting for an officer’s gun. If that gun comes out, Officer Atkin is going to get shot, I could be shot, I have to end it now. I have to stop the threat,” Longman said, according to the D.A. report. “At that point, it was a training-based reactionary response.”
But Neese’s lawyers say Longman and the other officers should have known that it was impossible for Breinholt to pull out the gun, given that their holsters require two steps to release the weapon.
This was Longman’s third police shooting. He shot and killed a man in 2007 and another in 2008, and the district attorney found his actions to be legally justified in both cases. He has never been disciplined for any of the shootings he’s been involved in.
Longman is one of 38 Utah officers who have been in more than one shooting in the past 17 years, according to the Tribune’s database, expanded with help from the PBS series FRONTLINE. He is among six West Valley City officers, both current and former, who have fired their weapons more than once.
Neese alleges in her lawsuit that Jacobs, the police chief, has perpetuated a custom that allows officers who have been in more than one shooting “to continue in their duties and carry a firearm without corrective training, supervision, and oversight.”
“Defendant Jacobs, the City, and WVCPD knew of Defendant Longman’s history of using lethal force, yet failed to supervise, train, discipline, or oversee him in such a way as to prevent his unlawful and unconstitutional use of lethal force in the future,” the lawsuit reads.
The department said in response that the allegation was “typical hyperbole” used in lawsuits that “has no basis reality.”
The lawsuit also challenges how Breinholt was treated by the officers prior to the shooting. Body camera footage shows Breinholt asked to be taken to a psychiatric hospital, but officers refused.
At one point before the shooting, Breinholt fell from his chair to the floor — and officers left him there for more than 11 minutes before medics arrived to check on him.
But the arresting officers, Atkin and Lane, didn’t tell the medics that Breinholt had taken pills or was suicidal, and the medics left.
The officers also threatened to charge Breinholt with more charges, such as a charge for giving a false name or a felony for destroying police property, after Breinholt began chewing on a Breathalyzer cord.
“The police were called to protect Chad,” said Neese’s attorney, Walter Mason. “The police had a duty to protect Chad. And they totally failed to do so. Had anyone simply exercised basic human compassion, his death could have been avoided.”
The lawsuit alleges Breinholt’s civil rights were violated, including his right to be free from punishment as a pre-trial detainee. It also alleges the department violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, because Breinholt was in a mental crisis and asked to be transported to a psychiatric hospital but the officers refused.
Neese seeks compensatory and punitive damages.