Susan Neese considers herself an “involuntary advocate” for policing reform.
She remembers years ago when her son, Michael Chad Breinholt, talked to her about how officers interact with people experiencing a mental health crisis. It was an issue that felt personal for him, as someone living with addiction and depression.
But it wasn’t an issue that Neese felt would affect her — until a West Valley City sergeant fatally shot her son inside the city’s police station.
Watching body camera footage of the moments before Breinholt’s death, Neese said, it’s clear that her 31-year-old son was in mental anguish.
Three years later, the city has paid Neese $350,000 to settle a lawsuit she filed against the department and its officers — and it’s made changes she hopes will save someone’s life.
The lawsuit “was never intended to be about money,” Neese said. “It was always about truth. Accountability. Change.”
The reforms include more training for West Valley police, and updated protocols for how officers process those arrested — like Breinholt — for driving under the influence, according to a document recently obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune in a public records request.
West Valley City officials declined to comment for this story, saying they were not permitted to speak about the settlement.
Here’s what the city has changed.
The Intoxilyzer room where Breinholt died is closed.
Breinholt was arrested on Aug. 23, 2019, after he showed up at his girlfriend’s workplace while intoxicated, records show. Two officers arrested him for driving under the influence and brought him to the police department for a more accurate breath test.
Officers sat with Breinholt, whose hands were cuffed together, in a small room in the basement of City Hall where an Intoxilyzer was stored.
Body camera footage obtained by The Tribune shows Breinholt intoxicated and crying while in the room for hours. The shooting happened after he briefly wrestled with two officers, one of them yelling that Breinholt had put his hand on the officer’s gun.
West Valley City Police Sgt. Tyler Longman then rushed into the room, said, “You’re about to die, my friend,” and fatally shot Breinholt in the head.
Today, officers instead take suspects to a more secure processing area within the city’s new public safety building, which opened in late 2019.
There, the room where the Intoxilyzer is stored has a bench that a suspect’s hands or feet could be cuffed to if needed. And a holding cell is now available, city officials told Neese in a letter that outlined what the department is doing differently in direct response to Breinholt’s death.
Guns are banned from the new Intoxilyzer room.
After spending hours in the small room, 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. As they did, Breinholt — with his hands cuffed behind his back — put his hand on the gun of one of the officers. Two officers started wrestling with him, though the gun never left the holster, body camera footage shows.
At that point, Longman came in and shot Breinholt in the head at near point-blank range.
Now, West Valley officers are required to lock their guns in a secure area before entering the new Intoxilyzer room, city officials wrote to Neese.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill found Breinholt’s shooting legally justified but called it “disturbing” and said he believed the death could have been prevented.
It marked Longman’s third police shooting. He shot and killed a man in 2007 and another in 2008; 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 continues to work as a sergeant for West Valley City, police officials confirmed last week.
Officers must complete 40 hours of crisis intervention training.
Body camera footage shows Breinholt’s girlfriend and a co-worker told the two West Valley officers who arrested him 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, and took him to the police station.
While in that small room, Breinholt fell from his chair to the floor at one point. Officers left him there, crying, for more than 11 minutes before medics arrived to check on him, according to the footage.
But the arresting officers didn’t tell the medics that Breinholt had taken pills or was suicidal, and the medics left.
Longman came to the station because the two arresting officers needed help filling out an electric warrant to do a blood draw. Breinholt asked Longman to be taken to a psychiatric hospital, but the sergeant refused.
“I’m not going to sit here all night and play games with you,” Longman told Breinholt. “You’ve already wasted our fire department’s time by having them come out for some bullsh--, OK? I’m not taking you to UNI [University Neuropsychiatric Institute], I’m taking you to jail.”
Neese’s lawsuit alleged officers “threatened and antagonized” her son before Longman fired the fatal shot.
Now, officers are required to complete a 40-hour crisis intervention training aimed at helping them better understand mental health issues and people who are in crisis.
Officers also will receive additional de-escalation training, and learn how to tactically retreat from people who are suicidal, officials said in the letter to Neese. West Valley City officers also now receive training from KultureCity about how to respond to those with sensory needs.
Breinholt’s mother feels the added training will have the biggest impact toward saving lives and preventing something similar from happening again.
“They were clearly untrained for the emotional distress that Chad was in,” Neese said. “Had these changes been in place before, they could have recognized that and had a more appropriate response to the clear signs that Chad was in such emotional distress.”
Her attorney, Colin King, said he hopes that the increased training at West Valley City will continue for future officers and that more agencies across the state — and the nation — will implement similar teachings for their officers.
“Cops are simply not trained to recognize that part of their duty is not to think first with their gun,” he said, “but to look at people with their hearts and their minds and their eyes and listen to what they’re saying.”
Neese figures she has become the police reform advocate she feels her son would want her to be. But she struggled to explain her reaction to the changes outlined in the city’s letter.
The feeling, she said, wasn’t happiness. It doesn’t make her feel better. She’ll never know, she said, the person whose death might have been avoided because of the changes made after her son died.
“I think [West Valley police] have a long way to go for accountability,” she said. “Certainly, the changes were a huge step in the right direction.”
With the lawsuit settled, Neese feels like her family can move forward in their grief. She said she feels like she can sometimes hear Breinholt’s voice telling her, “Mom, be at peace.”
“I’m at peace with everything I’ve done and continue to do for Chad,” Neese said. “Of course I’ll never find peace in the traumatic and violent way that he died. But I feel like if I continue to be to his voice and spread awareness, I could somehow continue a part of his legacy.”
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