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The family of a man shot and killed by a Honolulu police officer at his home at Sunset Beach has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court claiming that the shooting was unjustified and that officers violated police protocol for dealing with a person in the throes of a psychiatric crisis.
Police shot and killed 32-year-old Steven Hyer Jr. on July 23, 2018 after a 7-hour standoff during which he refused to obey officers’ commands to come out of his studio apartment. Police were called to the home by a neighbor who said Hyer became upset, broke into his house while he was inside and chased him around.
A police psychologist had instructed officers to transport Hyer to a psychiatric facility for evaluation and treatment. But when Hyer would not cooperate, officers brought in a SWAT team instead of a crisis negotiator or an officer trained and experienced in working with people with mental illness, the lawsuit says.
The suit alleges that officers used a bullhorn to taunt and ridicule Hyer into surrendering and, when that failed, shot rubber bullets and tear gas at him. Officers later sent a police dog unannounced into Hyer’s apartment. When Hyer defended himself against the dog, a police officer shot Hyer three times.
“The police have a lot of tools in their toolkit to deal with different situations,” said Peter Hsieh, a Honolulu attorney representing Hyer’s family. “When they bring in a SWAT team, which is a paramilitary unit, their whole mentality is to handle the situation with one tool, which is guns and rifles — not through peaceful negotiations.”
Michelle Yu, a spokeswoman for HPD, declined to comment on pending litigation.
Hyer was a disabled Air Force veteran. He received regular mental health care from the Veteran’s Administration to cope with psychiatric symptoms brought on by a severe head injury he sustained while serving in the military in his early 20s.
When HPD officers arrived at Hyer’s apartment on the evening before his death, it was their second complaint of the day over what neighbors described as Hyer’s delusional, argumentative behavior.
During this second visit to Hyer’s apartment, an officer called a police psychologist who instructed officers to transport Hyer to a psychiatric facility. When Hyer refused to leave the apartment, police called in a SWAT team — a move that the complaint describes as “overkill, excessive and unreasonable.”
“The neighbors heard what the SWAT officers were saying, which was: ‘Come out, you delinquent. Don’t be a coward,'” Hsieh said. “And at the same time saying, ‘If you come out peacefully, everything will be alright.'”
“But simultaneously they were shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at him into his room. It was obvious to me that there was nobody out there overseeing the situation and supervising what was going on.”
In an attempt to force Hyer out of his apartment, officers eventually deployed a police dog. Officers did not announce to Hyer that they were going to send in the dog and Hyer, startled by the animal, reacted defensively, the lawsuit says.
Police have told reporters that Hyer repeatedly stabbed the dog with an arrow, prompting an officer to fire shots at Hyer, killing him on the scene. But the lawsuit includes a differing account from Wayne Silva, the police dog’s handler.
According to the lawsuit, Silva said that he and other officers on the scene did not know that the dog had been stabbed until after Hyer had been shot.
“The cops say he stabbed the dog and that’s why they shot him,” Hsieh said. “Well, what do you expect when you send in this dog and you don’t tell the guy that you’re going to do that and he’s caught by surprise and he starts to defend himself? Does that give police the justification to shoot and kill a man over a dog?”
The lawsuit alleges that Hyer’s shooting was an unreasonable use of deadly force. The complaint also says that HPD officers are not properly trained to deal with people who are suffering from mental illness and did not follow the department’s own protocol and procedures for interacting with people in crisis when dealing with Hyer.
Law enforcement officer-involved shootings have been rare in Hawaii, but so far this year there have been four on Oahu. There were six fatal officer-involved shootings on Oahu in 2018, including the shooting of Hyer.
Honolulu police fatally shot Siatuu Tauai Jr., 51, on Jan. 29 after he struck an officer with his vehicle during a traffic stop near the Kamehameha Shopping Center in Honolulu.
A state deputy sheriff shot and killed 28-year-old Delmar Espejo, who was homeless, on the State Capitol grounds on Feb. 18 after the deputy found the man with an open container of alcohol. The two were struggling when the man was shot in the back at close range.
Two days later, a pair of plainclothes Honolulu police officers shot and killed 26-year-old Kyle Thomas, who was suspected of shoplifting at a Mililani Walmart and ignored officers’ orders.
On March 1, 47-year-old inmate Maurice Arrisgado Jr. was attempting to escape the Oahu Community Correctional Center when he was shot and killed by a public safety officer.
When a Honolulu police officer is involved in a shooting, the HPD usually opens an internal investigation to determine if the officer who discharged a weapon acted appropriately as well as a criminal investigation into the suspect.
Unlike most large mainland police departments, the names of police officers in Hawaii who are involved in shootings that injure or kill individuals are not released until after the criminal investigation has been completed.
An independent police fatality review board was created in 2017 by the Hawaii Legislature in an effort to ensure that officer-involved shootings are reviewed independently of the police department. The board is supposed to provide a recommendation to prosecutors on whether to prosecute.
In June, the independent board finished reviewing its first case: the shooting death of a former state corrections officer by Honolulu police in August 2018. But the results are unknown to the public. That’s because the statute that established the board in 2017 does not specify when and under what circumstances the board’s recommendations should be disclosed.
Kevin Takata, a board member and the state’s supervising deputy attorney general, said in an email Tuesday that he and his fellow board members would not comment on whether it had reviewed Hyer’s case.
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