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Man loses suit against Tampa police after being shot in face during attempted suicide call

Jason and Amanda Turk pose with their three daughters (from left) Emily, 12, with daughters Emily, 12, Anabel, 3, and Adeline, 5. [Courtesy of Jason Turk]
Published Nov. 24, 2018

A Tampa real estate agent's four-year legal battle against the city of Tampa and its police department came to an end last week, when a jury sided with the officer who shot him twice in the face during a call meant to prevent his suicide.

The federal lawsuit Jason Turk filed in August 2014 claimed that the city and then-Chief Jane Castor failed to provide the necessary de-escalation and crisis intervention training required for officers to successfully answer calls for help involving the mentally ill.

"I want the Tampa Police Department to take crisis intervention training more seriously and implement it into their training the way the (Hillsborough Sheriff's Office) and countless police departments across the country do," Turk, 42, told the Tampa Bay Times. "It is an important component of policing because most calls into police involve some sort of mental health crisis. Not every call is about chasing down a bad guy."

One call for help came from Turk's wife, Amanda, in the early morning of Jan. 9, 2014. Turk, an 11-year Navy veteran, had become estranged from his wife and was suffering from severe depression. He was drinking heavily that night when he recorded himself reading aloud from a suicide note and sent the video to his wife, who then called 911.

She told the operator her husband was threatening to kill himself, and added a crucial detail: "He knows if cops come and he won't put down the gun that they'll shoot him," she can be heard telling the operator in a recording of the 911 call. The police classified the call a "suicide by cop."

It still haunts her, she said.

Turk admits he had a pistol in his lap when K-9 Officer Timothy Bergman spotted him sitting in his car as it idled in the driveway of the Tampa Heights home where Turk moved during a trial separation from his wife. But Turk insists the only person ever threatened by the weapon was himself.

In four years of mediation hearings, internal investigations and federal depositions, Turk has argued he never raised his gun or pointed it at officers that night. His lawsuit claimed that Bergman's use of excessive force violated his constitutional rights when, four minutes after he arrived, the officer fired multiple rounds through the rear driver's side window of Turk's BMW, striking him twice in the cheek and jaw. The suit also alleges that none of the officers who ultimately responded to Amanda Turk's call had undergone any crisis intervention training.

Initially, a lower-court judge sided with City Attorney Ursula Richardson, granting a summary judgment that absolved Bergman and the city of any wrongdoing. But last year, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling, ordering the case to a jury trial.

"I've never seen, frankly, anything like this but I read every single statement that the officer provided and they are so dramatically divergent," appeals court Judge Kathleen O'Malley said at the April 2017 hearing. "Under oath he's got all kinds of details and the next time he's under oath the details are different."

The appeals judges' ruling cited five different accounts Bergman provided under oath that contained "numerous and material inconsistencies" on facts about what orders he yelled to Turk when he saw him in the car, the point at which he saw Turk raise his weapon, the direction in which he saw Turk point the muzzle of the gun and whether he instead had seen Turk's cell phone.

But in this month's trial, a jury ruled that Turk's attorney, Michael Maddux, failed to prove that Bergman "intended to cause a harmful or offensive contact that was unreasonable or unjustified," and agreed that Turk "posed an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury" before Bergman's first shot.

In addition to throwing out the Turks' claims for $3 million in damages for physical and emotional pain inflicted by the 2014 shooting, U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven upheld the summary judgment ruling that the suit "offered no evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that the city was deliberately indifferent to the rights of its citizens by failing to train its officers on crisis intervention."

On Nov. 7, Castor testified that the department mandates crisis intervention training for all officers — information that Scriven noted in her final order had never been offered up by the defense in previous hearings.

Castor testified that it was the supervisors' duty to ensure every officer completed the crisis intervention training, which is completed on the "mobile digital terminal" computers installed in police cruisers. Previously, all officers were required to take a 40-hour, in-person course, but by 2014 the training had moved to the online model, Scriven's final order said. Castor also testified that officers were required to undergo a separate "de-escalation training" course.

Still, a Tampa Police officer on a mission to save Jason Turk's life nearly ended it, Maddux said.

"Switching from suspect mode to protector mode requires more training and selecting the right personalities to listen and guide people to safe outcomes," Maddux said. "With mental health crisis on the rise, people equipped with a de-escalation mentality need to be first responders. They can then be the heroes we want and need them to be."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.

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