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Jury finds 2 Buena Park officers used excessive force in fatal shooting of 19-year-old, award $3.5 million to his mother

An Orange County jury has determined that two Buena Park police officers used excessive force when they shot and killed an unarmed 19-year-old following a traffic stop in Fullerton and has awarded his mother $3.5 million in damages, attorneys for the family announced Thursday.

The jury verdict determined that David Patrick Sullivan — the teen killed by police on Aug. 19, 2019 — was 58 percent at fault for the fatal shooting while officers Bobby Colon and Jennifer Tran were 42 percent at fault. But since jurors also found the shooting was an intentional rather than just a negligent act, the size of the verdict was not lowered, said attorney Gary A. Dordick, who represented the Sullivan family.

“I think the most important factor is the police shot an unarmed man without a weapon who never presented a deadly threat to the officers,” Dordick said of the verdict. “He might have been a threat, in that he was running around screaming, but it never rose to the level of a deadly threat. Therefore (the officers) should have used different, non-lethal methods.”

Buena Park officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the verdict or the damages awarded by the jury.

Publicly released footage from a body-worn camera on one of the officers shows an unarmed Sullivan struck by multiple gunshots before collapsing to the sidewalk. The Orange County District Attorney’s Office previously cleared the officers of any criminal wrongdoing, describing their actions as “reasonable and justified under the circumstances.”

Deanna Sullivan, David’s mother, said she was “grateful (the jury) saw the situation for what it was.” The mother said she was pleased there was accountability for the officers, but added that there could be no justice since her son is not alive.

“It is not okay to shoot an unarmed person,” the mother said. “Why is their gun the first thing they go for?”

There was no dispute that Sullivan stole a car from his work, that he had a suicide note in his pocket and that officers Colon and Tran pulled him over for an expired registration tag on the vehicle. All parties at trial agreed that Sullivan tried to flee — striking a patrol car and another vehicle in the process — and once the stolen SUV “came to rest” Sullivan charged at the officers.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that Sullivan was in the midst of a mental breakdown and the officers should have used different, non-lethal methods in order to address someone in distress.

The officers and attorneys representing the city argued that Sullivan — who was 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds — appeared to reach behind his back for a possible weapon and then ran toward them, leading them to believe he was going to attack and disarm them.

Dordick described Sullivan as a “remarkable young man,” adding that he shouldn’t be judged for “the last seven seconds of his life.” Sullivan’s mother described him as a “sweet, kind person” who during his high school bands took part in marching band, in drum line, in drama and on the wrestling team.

“He had a life to live,” the mother said. “He had so much more to do. And he was just becoming his own person and the man he was going to be.”

Months before the police shooting, Sullivan’s grandfather had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, his mother said. Sullivan put his plans to join the military on hold in order to serve as his grandfather’s daily caretaker. The grandfather’s death helped lead to his mental breakdown, according to his family.

Dordick described the verdict as “vindication for the family” and a “wakeup call for police officers” tasked with dealing with people in emotional distress.

“It is poor training, poor tactics and officers that panic under stress,” the attorney said. “They need to learn from these tragic situations and not sweep them under the rug and pretend they did nothing wrong.”

The lawsuit initially was filed in federal court, but after a trial resulted in a hung jury the case was moved to state court. Dordick said he had suggested to jurors during the trial that Sullivan’s family should receive $45 million in damages. The attorney said he believed the verdict — which was backed by the civil jury in a 9 to 3 split — was a compromise.

Source: Orange County Register

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