The sister of Crystal Ragland, a U.S. Army veteran who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder when police said she reached for a fake gun, is suing the city of Huntsville and the two police officers who shot and killed Ragland two years ago.
The federal lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that the city fails to properly train police to deal with people who are mentally ill, does not hold officers accountable and condones excessive force.
The 25-page lawsuit comes just weeks after a Huntsville officer was found guilty of murder in the unrelated shooting of a man who was threatening suicide, a shooting that the city has maintained did not violate police standards.
In the Ragland case, the lawsuit accuses the city and two unnamed officers of excessive force, wrongful death and negligence. The lawsuit also accuses the city of failure to have adequate practices for dealing with people who are mentally ill.
Martin Weinberg, a civil rights attorney representing Ragland’s sister Brandie Robinson, said they hope the lawsuit will lead to reform in the Huntsville Police Department, including greater transparency and changes to how internal reviews of police officers are handled.
Kelly Schrimsher, a spokeswoman for the city of Huntsville, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Officers went to Ragland’s home at Stadium Apartments in west Huntsville on the morning of May 30, 2019 after receiving calls about the 32-year-old behaving erratically with what police later said was a fake gun.
The police department at that time said that when two officers got to her home, Ragland reached for the replica .45-caliber pistol that was sticking out of her pocket and shouted for the officers to shoot her.
The lawsuit says that in the initial 911 call someone from the apartment complex told police that Ragland suffered from PTSD, schizophrenia and other mental health diagnoses. Within a minute of officers arriving at Ragland’s apartment, they shot her multiple times and killed her, according to the lawsuit.
The officers, referred to as Officer A and Officer B in the lawsuit, have not been publicly identified. Weinberg said he expects the city will soon give him the officers’ names.
About three weeks after the shooting, Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard said his office would not charge the officers. His office called the shooting legally justified.
The police department announced that its internal review board had cleared both officers of wrongdoing and found that they followed the city’s policies and procedures.
The lawsuit takes issue with the internal review board. On that board, three police captains selected by Chief Mark McMurray secretly vote on whether officers accused of misconduct have violated policy. The board almost always finds that officers have followed policy, according to the lawsuit.
“It’s just a rubber stamp,” Weinberg told AL.com.
The lawsuit cites the case of Officer William Ben Darby as an example of the board’s questionable decision-making. A Madison County jury found Darby guilty of murder earlier this month, nearly three years after a police review board cleared him of wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of Jeff Parker, a suicidal man. (Weinberg is also suing the city and Darby in the Parker case.)
Officers shot and killed Ragland just over a year after Darby shot and killed Parker.
“The City has repeatedly failed and refused to address widely known systemic deficiencies regarding the use of force by HPD police officers for many years,” the Ragland lawsuit states.
The lawsuit also says that the city encourages officers to use force, rather than de-escalate situations involving people who are mentally ill. The lawsuit again cites the Darby case as an example. Officer Genisha Pegues was trying to de-escalate the situation with Parker when Darby showed up with a shotgun and killed him. Yet the police department sent Pegues and another officer to remedial training, while it defended Darby and said he followed policy.
Weinberg said the Darby case is evidence of a larger problem inside the Huntsville Police Department. Officers believe they won’t be held accountable for using excessive force or for escalating situations, he said. The lawsuit says the city’s inaction encourages officers to use excessive force.
“By taking a position that aggressive interactions are preferred over de-escalation the City of Huntsville sent a message to officers that they could in fact face consequences for trying to deescalate situations,” the lawsuit says.
Ragland’s family briefly watched video of the shooting more than a year ago. Weinberg said he hasn’t yet seen the footage but expects the city will show it to him soon. The city has declined to release the footage to the public.
“We want the public to know what happened,” Weinberg said. “We need transparency in these kinds of cases.”
The lawsuit also references a recent report by the Huntsville Police Citizens Advisory Council, which found that the department needs to be more transparent with the public. The report was commissioned to review actions police took at racial injustice protests last summer, where Crystal Ragland’s death was at times a rallying cry for demonstrators in Huntsville.
“Crystal Ragland was a beloved member of her family and a decorated military veteran who received accommodations for her conduct…,” the lawsuit says. Ragland received a National Defense Service Medal and Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, according to the lawsuit.
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