Olathe and Johnson County law officers recklessly provoked a deadly confrontation that left a mentally distressed woman dead in a police shooting last year, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed this week.
The shooting of 26-year-old Ciara Howard was captured on police body camera video.
The video showed what unfolded after police arrived at a small Olathe home to pick Howard up on a minor warrant. They ended up in a standoff because the distraught woman barricaded herself inside with a handgun, threatening suicide.
Special tactical teams did not come, warning that it was not worth the risk to force entry, but the officers and commanders that were there ultimately decided to go in.
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The Johnson County District Attorney’s Office found that the shooting was justified and filed no charges against the officers, but the lawsuit seeks $4 million in damages for what it says was a “recklessly executed siege.”
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Howard’s estate in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan., names as defendants Johnson County; the city of Olathe; Olathe Police Chief Steve Menke; Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden; and 10 individual officers and sheriff’s deputies involved in the August 23, 2017, shooting.
When law enforcement arrived on the day of the shooting, Howard was inside her boyfriend’s Olathe home and was threatening suicide while holding a handgun that belonged to her boyfriend.
She was “obviously agitated and mentally unstable,” and officers on the scene received “explicit warnings” from the sheriff and tactical team commanders about “the dangers of entering the house,” according to the suit.
Despite the warnings, officers on scene used a battering ram to force entry into the house and worked their way to a small laundry room in the back where Howard was barricaded.
Howard continued to act irrationally and was holding the gun in her hand, shouting at the officers, when three officers at the front opened fire and killed her.
“I’m never going to be able to understand why it had to happen that way,” Ciara Howard’s mother, Kathy Arnold, said Thursday. “I’m heartbroken and sick. She was a beautiful soul.”
A spokesman for the Olathe Police Department said Thursday that the department declined to comment on the lawsuit because of the pending litigation.
Hayden, the Johnson County sheriff, said he couldn’t talk about details of the lawsuit. But he said what happened was “a tragic loss.”
“It’s tragic for a woman to lose a child,” he said.
Hayden previously said the county’s deputies went into the home in support of Olathe police officers and that he did not know why commanders at the scene chose to go in.
Earlier this year, The Star sued the City of Olathe and obtained footage from body cameras that were worn by Johnson County sheriff’s deputies at the scene.
The footage showed that law officers were aware that Howard had a history of minor, nonviolent crimes and that an arrest warrant had been issued for her for not returning to the county’s adult residential center. They knew she was mentally unstable and was threatening suicide.
Both Olathe and Johnson County commanders on the scene requested tactical “SWAT” teams, but both tactical teams declined to participate, saying it was not worth the risk to force entry into the house.
“It’s not worth getting into a shootout and hurting an officer or hurting her over the type of warrants that we have,” a commander on the scene was heard saying in the video.
Deputies relayed the news, the lawsuit said, that the sheriff was “not on board” with entering the house.
The lawsuit alleges that commanders did not summon specialized crisis negotiators or mental health specialists, but put Howard’s boyfriend into an ill-fated role as negotiator, contrary to recommended police practice that discourages using family or friends in crisis negotiations.
Then, about three hours after officers first arrived at the house, the Olathe commander gave Howard an ultimatum — that she had five minutes to surrender.
A team of Olathe and Johnson County officers in protective vests went inside behind a riot shield, with a barking police dog and with weapons drawn. For a while, Howard talked to the lawmen through a slight opening in the laundry room door.
Once she slammed the door shut, the commander leading the officers forced it open and — after 13 seconds of shouting — three officers at the front opened fire.
Olathe noted that a multijurisdictional investigation reviewed by the Johnson County prosecutor determined the shooting was justified.
But the prosecutor’s finding addressed only the threat the officers faced once they were in the house, Johnson County Chief Deputy District Attorney Chris McMullin said at the time. It did not address the decisions officers made to enter the house.
The lawsuit contends that by forcing their way into the house and into the back room, the law officers “knowingly provoked an unnecessary and deadly confrontation,” creating “their own ‘jeopardy’ … which led directly to the shooting and brutal death of Ms. Howard.”
Their actions, the lawsuit said, were done in “direct violation of police policies and protocols.”
The lawsuit alleges that, after the law enforcement agencies involved reviewed the shooting, no officers were disciplined. The suit said the agencies thus condoned “unconstitutional acts.”
In addition to Chief Menke, Olathe police named in the lawsuit include Deputy Chief Michael Butaud, Sgt. Chad Mellick, Maj. Wade Lanphear, Sgt. Tim Sweany, Officer Ian Mills and Sgt. Brian Wessling.
Johnson County Sheriff’s Office personnel named in the lawsuit, in addition to the sheriff, include Deputy Nate Denton, Deputy Jameson Miller, Deputy Thomas Chaulk and Deputy Tamara Sparks.