Policy and training flaws not to blame in Kan. inmate’s fatal restraint case, judge rules
The remaining allegations in the lawsuit are made against specific corrections and police officers and include charges such as excessive force, battery, negligence, and failure to intervene
By Matthew Kelly
The Wichita Eagle
WICHITA, Kan. — Flawed policies and insufficient training are not to blame for Cedric “CJ” Lofton’s fatal restraint at the hands of Sedgwick County corrections officers in 2021, a federal judge has ruled.
Eric Melgren, chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Kansas, dropped five counts of negligent training and deliberate indifference against the county and the city of Wichita in a civil rights lawsuit brought by Lofton’s brother Marquan Teetz.
The remaining allegations in the lawsuit are made against specific corrections and police officers and include excessive force, battery, negligence, failure to intervene, supervisor liability and deliberate indifference to serious medical need.
Five corrections officers pinned Lofton, 17, to the concrete floor of a holding cell for 39 uninterrupted minutes after he had a brief altercation with an intake worker. He was at the lockup facility because police officers responding to a call for mental health help took him there when he resisted arrest.
Melgren asserted the county corrections officers’ actions appear to be “in blatant disregard of the county’s written policies,” specifically noting provisions of the Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center’s use of force policy.
“Had the officers followed [the use of force policy] by employing less restrictive methods of behavior control, not applying force or restraints for the purposes of punishment or discipline, verbally or physically intervening, or immediately reporting all observations through the proper chain of command, Lofton would likely still be alive,” Melgren wrote on Nov. 14 .
No one who interacted with Lofton early on Sept. 24, 2021 , faced criminal charges. Under state law, the five corrections workers and eight police officers listed as co-defendants in the civil suit will continue to receive legal representation paid for by the county and city.
Records obtained by The Eagle show Sedgwick County has so far spent $480,948 fighting the civil rights lawsuit. Wichita has spent $224,723.
‘Making the wrong decision’
Attorneys representing Teetz had argued the teen’s death was the result of years of inaction and indifference by both local governments, and that deficiencies in policies and training standards deprived Lofton of his civil rights.
Melgren found that Teetz’s lawyers failed to explain the causal link between the use of force policy’s silence on the dangers of the prone restraint position and officers’ decision to use it on Lofton.
“In fact, Plaintiff alleges that regardless of the County’s policies or training, the excessiveness of the officers’ force would have been obvious to any reasonable officer given the surrounding circumstances,” he wrote.
Melgren initially dismissed failure to train claims against the county and city in December 2022. But Teetz’s lawyers contended they should be allowed to amend their initial complaint after all five corrections officers — identified in court records as Jason Stepien, Brenton Newby, Karen Conklin, William Buckner and Benito Mendoza — testified in sworn depositions that Sedgwick County’s prone restraint training did not include information about its dangers.
In dismissing deliberate indifference claims against the city of Wichita, Melgren said no special training should be necessary for officers to know not to falsify medical records, as Wichita officer Ryan O’Hare allegedly did when he changed answers on Lofton’s intake form after learning his initial assessment would have required police to transport him to a hospital.
“The Court cannot conclude that it was ‘highly predictable’ and ‘patently obvious’ that WPD officers would falsify Lofton’s medical records,” Melgren wrote. “Just as all officers should intuitively know that it is illegal and morally reprehensible to rape an inmate, all officers — even untrained ones — should know the same is true of falsifying detainees’ intake responses to avoid procuring treatment for their medical needs.”
The judge wrote that even if Teetz did manage to establish a pattern of deficient training, “he has not established a pattern of constitutional violations resulting from that deficient training” by Wichita or Sedgwick County , noting that a municipality’s culpability for rights deprivation is “at its most tenuous where a claim turns on a failure to train.”
Respondeat superior, a legal doctrine that holds private employers legally responsible for the wrongful acts of employees committed on the job, does not apply to municipalities and their agencies.
“It is not enough for a plaintiff to allege that an officer’s wrong decision injured a citizen during a predictable situation,” Melgren wrote. “Rather, municipal liability requires a high likelihood that the County’s failure to train will result in the officer making the wrong decision.”
He cited a 1998 Kansas case where the federal court rejected an effort to classify prone restraint as deadly force “even though it has the potential to cause death in certain circumstances.”
“In fact, this Court has found ‘no evidence that the probability of death is so high as to be considered “likely” when such restraint is used.’ In other words, the prone restraint itself is not deadly force but can become deadly force when intentionally or recklessly misused.”
Melgren cited a 2008 Tenth Circuit ruling outlining “that putting substantial or significant pressure on a suspect’s back while that suspect is in a face-down prone position after being subdued and/or incapacitated constitutes excessive force” and that “regardless of any specialized knowledge, ‘a reasonable officer would know these actions present a substantial and totally unnecessary risk of death to the person.’”
In body cam footage from Wichita police interviews with county employees after the fatal incident, one corrections officer stated: “We did our normal restraint where we used more people than enough to subdue him. He started snoring and then went nonresponsive.”
That footage, released by the city in response to an open records request, has since been scrubbed from the internet.
In the aftermath of Lofton’s death, former county corrections director Glenda Martens defended her staff’s actions, saying they “acted well within the policy and the requirements of that policy” throughout the extended struggle as they pinned the shoeless, shackled juvenile to the ground.
Lawyers representing Teetz did not respond to requests for comment.
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