CLEARWATER — It was as though the Clearwater Police Department officers would have rather been doing anything other than what they’d been called to do Feb. 27, 2020: check on Adam Phillips, a 49-year-old grandfather known for texting back right away.
That’s what his girlfriend later told the attorneys. She and his daughter, Alexis Phillips, had asked the police to check on him. He uncharacteristically failed to answer calls or texts for nearly a day.
Cpl. David Nugent and another officer entered Adam Phillips’ apartment and yelled a few times, according to an internal investigation. They found him in bed, unresponsive. But they never entered the bedroom, the report said.
The corporal said he tossed a magazine at Phillips. It landed on his arm, police photos later showed. He didn’t move.
“He’s here and he’s breathing,” Nugent told the girlfriend, according to the internal report. He left after offering some unsolicited advice: “You might want to find another boyfriend.”
The next day, a different group of Clearwater officers found Adam Phillips in the same place, the magazine still touching him. He was dead.
Now a lawsuit filed by his daughter against the police department says the officers who responded on Feb. 27 were negligent and could have saved Adam Phillips’ life if they had done their jobs properly.
The officers assumed Phillips was “either sleeping or pretending to be asleep,” according to an internal police investigation.
The Clearwater Police Department investigation resulted in Nugent being reprimanded. The 25-year police veteran “failed to conduct the appropriate inquiries commonly done for such a call,” the internal report said, and “failed to adequately communicate with his back-up officer or develop a proper plan prior to entering the residence.”
In sum, it concluded that Nugent had neglected his duty.
“A lot of people who live alone don’t have family members who are that caring,” said Alexis Phillips’ attorney, Wesley Straw.
The grandfather “had two people who loved him that much actually call the police department for him to get them there in time to save his life, and they haphazardly and carelessly performed their job,” Straw said. “Aren’t they supposed to serve and protect?
“In this case, they didn’t do either.”
An autopsy found that Adam Phillips died sometime between Feb. 27 and Feb. 28, 2020, from an accidental overdose of drugs including hydrocodone and oxycodone, both opioids found in prescription pain medications. Straw said they were among the medications Phillips was prescribed for chronic pain issues, including spine and knee issues and an unsuccessful hernia surgery.
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In 2016, Clearwater officers became the first police force in the Tampa Bay region to start carrying naloxone, a medication that rapidly reverses opioid overdoses. All officers carry it, police spokesman Rob Shaw said.
Neither the internal report nor the lawsuit addresses whether the officers should have used naloxone, or if it would have helped Phillips.
There is also no agency policy that specifically outlines how officers should perform what law enforcement calls a welfare check, which is when officers are sent to check on someone’s wellbeing.
The internal investigation did not fault the other officer. Shaw declined to comment on the lawsuit — neither the agency nor the city comments on pending litigation — and declined to make Nugent available for an interview.
Phillips may have taken the wrong dosage, Straw suggested, or accidentally mixed medications that reacted badly together. He wasn’t a recreational drug user, the attorney said, but added that how the overdose happened does not excuse the officers’ failure to help the 49-year-old.
“He was one of the two most important beings in (Alexis’) life,” along with her daughter, he said. “All of her memories and her future included him.”
Straw described Adam Phillips as a gregarious, social man with a big circle of friends and a huge love for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He worked as an insurance adjuster. He and Alexis’ mother divorced in 2018, but he’d moved on with his life, the attorney said, and he was happy: because of his new girlfriend, but especially because he’d recently become a grandfather.
He was a hands-on dad to Alexis, Straw said, coaching her soccer teams when she was a kid and bursting with pride at her academic and athletic accomplishments as a soccer player at Largo High School and then Limestone University in South Carolina. When she got pregnant, it seemed like he’d get to do it all over again.
“Emotionally he was probably never in a better place,” Straw said, “because he had this new granddaughter who was the love of his life and gave him a more full future.”
Alexis Phillips wasn’t available to speak to the Tampa Bay Times this week, but gave Straw permission to discuss the lawsuit.
Soon after her father died, the coronavirus pandemic upended everything. Straw said it was nearly nine months before the daughter could hold the celebration of life she’d planned for her dad.
‘We would have no cover’
Nugent and the other officer had no plan when they entered Adam Phillips’ apartment, according to the internal investigation, or even much of a discussion. Both told investigators they didn’t ask about Phillips’ medical history, or try to call his phone, or ask if neighbors had seen him.
The one thing they did ask, the report said, was whether he owned any guns. The girlfriend said she thought he did. Nugent told investigators that this detail colored his behavior. Neither of the officers ever went beyond the threshold of the bedroom door.
“I feared that if we passed that threshold, we would have no cover or concealment,” Nugent told an investigator. “And if we got into some type of situation where force was used, I’d be sitting here having to answer for why I went in there.”
So neither officer entered the bedroom, the internal investigation said. Nor did they approach Phillips, physically examine him or try to wake him up.
Nugent told an investigator he may have overstepped in his comments to Phillips’ girlfriend. But aside from that, neither officer thought they’d done anything wrong. A gun was later found in the nightstand.
The girlfriend and maintenance workers waited outside the apartment when the officers went inside on Feb. 27. But the officers told her she could not go inside to check on Phillips herself, according to Straw. In interviews with investigators, the officers said she never asked.
By the next morning, Phillips’ loved ones still hadn’t heard from him. So they asked police to conduct another welfare check.
A different set of officers responded. One called out to Phillips. When he didn’t answer, the officer walked up to Phillips’ bed and could tell he had died.
Afterward, a detective analyzed Phillips’ phone and tablet and found what may have been his last words, an Instagram message sent to his girlfriend the night of Feb. 26: “Sweet dreams.”