Crystal Ragland reached for what turned out to be a fake pistol just before Huntsville police shot and killed her two years ago, a federal judge ruled.
Ragland, a 32-year-old Army veteran, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder when police went to her apartment in west Huntsville on the morning of May 30, 2019. The officers were investigating 911 calls from a manager at Stadium Apartments who told police Ragland had been threatening neighbors with what police later learned was a fake gun.
Instead of following police orders to put her hands up, Ragland reached for the pistol in her pocket and appeared to grasp its handle, U.S. District Judge Abdul K. Kallon wrote in a ruling issued on Friday.
Kallon dismissed a lawsuit Ragland’s family filed against the city of Huntsville, and Officers Brett Collum and Jonathan Henderson.
Ragland’s sister, Brandie Robinson, earlier this year filed the lawsuit, alleging excessive force and wrongful death. The lawsuit also accused the city of condoning excessive force, failing to properly train police to deal with people who are mentally ill, and failing to hold officers accountable.
On Friday, Judge Kallon granted defense motions to dismiss the case.
“In light of the reports that Ragland had been waving a handgun at others, when she reached for and grasped the handle of her firearm, a reasonable officer, given the circumstances, could have believed that Ragland posed a threat of serious harm,” Kallon wrote.
The judge wrote that he was issuing the decision based on precedent set in Graham v. Connor, a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The Supreme Court ruled that, in deciding whether police acted reasonably, courts have to consider the severity of the crime officers are investigating, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether the suspect is resisting arrest or attempting to flee. Courts also have to consider that police are often forced to make split-second decisions.
In his ruling, Judge Kallon wrote that even if the lawsuit’s claims against the city are true, he could not consider them because the officers did not violate Ragland’s civil rights.
“To impose municipal liability … the plaintiff must first show a violation of her constitutional rights,” the judge wrote.
C. Gregory Burgess, an attorney representing the city and the two officers, said he was “pleased but not surprised” by the judge’s decision.
“Our condolences remain with the Ragland family,” he said. “It is clear the officers acted in accordance with policy and the law on using deadly force. The court reaffirmed that police don’t have to wait until a gun is pointed at them to respond.”
Martin Weinberg, an attorney representing the family said they will appeal the ruling to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“We’re disappointed,” Weinberg said. “This case is extremely important in terms of police interactions with mentally ill individuals. We plan to appeal and see what happens there.”
Weinberg said they are also considering whether to file their wrongful death claims in state court — an option Kallon noted in his 14-page ruling.
Despite calls from Ragland’s family to release the bodycam footage, the city has declined to do so. Judge Kallon’s ruling described what the video shows.
According to the ruling, the videos show that on the morning of the shooting, the apartment complex manager told Officers Henderson and Collum that Ragland had pointed a gun at multiple people. The manager also explained that Ragland had been suffering from PTSD and behaving erratically for weeks.
When the officers got to Ragland’s apartment, Collum stood by the back door while Henderson went to knock at the front door.
“Hey Crystal, Huntsville police, can we talk to you real quick?” Henderson said before backing away and pointing his gun at the door, according to the judge’s ruling.
Instead of answering the front door, Ragland went to the back door where Collum told her to put her hands in the air.
Ragland denied having a gun and asked, “Why are you pointing your weapon at me?” according to the judge’s ruling.
Collum twice told Ragland to put her hands up. Ragland then told the officer to “shoot my fucking ass,” the ruling states.
Henderson joined Collum at the back door and told Ragland again to put her hands up.
“Unfortunately, Ragland reached her right hand towards her right pocket and grasped the handle of a pistol,” Judge Kallon wrote. “The officers fired multiple shots at Ragland.”
Within a few minutes, the officers administered first aid but Ragland did not survive.
The city earlier this year, citing the ongoing lawsuit, denied a request from AL.com to make the videos public and to release the officers’ personnel records.
In the lawsuit, Ragland’s family argued that the officers should have tried to de-escalate the situation, rather than approaching her apartment with their guns drawn. The judge wrote that while the officers may have escalated the situation, their actions have to be judge by the “perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
“In reflecting on this painful event and reviewing the legal claims of Ragland’s representative, the court is bound by the case law foreclosing a finding of a constitutional violation,” Judge Kallon wrote.
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