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In the simplest sense, Sheldon Haleck died at the hands of Honolulu police because he wouldn’t get on the sidewalk.
But the police see it much differently. They say officer and public safety was at stake the night they had to use pepper spray and a Taser to keep him from running through the street.
Now, the city is asking a federal appeals court to recognize that those kinds of police tactics are part of their “community caretaking function” and not excessive use of force.
It was around 8:15 p.m. on March 16, 2015, and Haleck had been seen darting through traffic on South King Street in dark clothing. When officers arrived they pepper-sprayed him numerous times and deployed a Taser in an attempt to get him out of the roadway.
Ultimately, six officers piled on top of him so they could cuff his hands and shackle his legs. He stopped breathing shortly after they dragged him out of the street.
But who exactly is responsible for the 38-year-old Hawaii Air National Guardsman’s death is still a matter of legal debate in a years-long feud between Haleck’s family and the city’s attorneys.
Earlier this month, the city asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to weigh in on the case, saying that it believes the three HPD officers accused by Haleck’s family of using excessive force in the 38-year-old’s arrest have “qualified immunity” in the civil lawsuit.
The gist of the argument is that the officers — Christopher Chung, Samantha Critchlow and Stephen Kardash — were simply doing their jobs to keep the community safe. Haleck was presenting a danger not only to himself, but to others who might be driving in the roadway.
“It is ‘beyond challenge’ that the community caretaking function authorizes police to preserve the uninterrupted and efficient flow of vehicular traffic and threats to public safety and convenience,” Deputy Corporation Counsel Traci Morita said in her appeal.
Morita also noted in court records that Haleck — who was larger than at least two of the responding officers — had committed at least three crimes during the incident, including disorderly conduct, disobeying a police officer and disobedience of a police officer.
According to the city that meant the officers were within their rights to use force to get Haleck out of the street to prevent “an injury-causing traffic accident.”
The city also noted that Haleck continually refused to comply with the officers’ orders, even after he was pepper-sprayed and zapped with a Taser.
Haleck was a veteran of the Hawaii Air National Guard, where he served for 15 years. According to his autopsy report, he had a history of anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, a personality disorder and substance abuse.
At the time of his death Haleck was under the influence of methamphetamine.
“The Defendant Officers were engaged in community caretaking duties when they sought to remove Mr. Haleck from the middle of a busy six-lane road in darkness,” Morita said. “Officer Chung was performing his classic community caretaking function when he first came to the scene and requested that Haleck move to the sidewalk.”
Morita declined to comment on the case.
Eric Seitz, the attorney representing Haleck’s family, dismissed the city’s argument as little more than a delay tactic.
“I have never seen a pleading that basically says that whatever the police do is presumed to be OK, especially when it involves the use of force, and especially when it involves somebody who was severely hurt or who died,” Seitz said.
“It suggests that as long as the police are engaged in some legitimate function of community caretaking that whatever they do is OK. And no court has ever said that.”
He said there needs to be a legitimate review of whether the officers who arrested Haleck followed the proper protocol when deciding to exert the force that they did, especially when considering the relatively minor crimes Haleck had been accused of committing.
In previous interviews and statements to the press, Seitz has said the only crime Haleck might have been guilty of the night he was approached by police was jaywalking.
He believes the city should just settle the case.
“There really is no reason in this case why they shouldn’t settle with us, and try to negotiate with us,” Seitz said last week. “They’ve offered not a penny. And they are unapologetic that their cops killed somebody, somebody who was mentally ill and who was incapable of responding to their demands.”
Seitz criticized the city for taking such an “aggressive approach” in its filing with the 9th Circuit, saying it appears to be in response to similar cases across the country that seek to give more deference to police officers in use of force situations.
He added that he’s particularly upset that the city’s appeal came just before the case was supposed to go trial, which was scheduled for Dec. 5. Now he says a resolution in the case could be drawn out for another two years.
“That’s their litigation strategy,” Seitz said. “Delay, delay, delay. Drag it out as long as possible.”