SOUTH BEND - Two separate lawsuits filed against the city of South Bend and its police department were recently dismissed - one involving the fatal shooting of a bank robbery suspect and the other concerning an officer’s arrest of two people at a hotel.
In 2010, the mother and children of Brian Szuflita filed suit alleging South Bend police officers Joshua Morgan and Chris Slager had a “duty to protect” Szuflita from the “use of deadly force” as they chased him following a 1st Source bank robbery on July 25, 2008.
Morgan and Slager fired 16 shots at Szuflita, hitting him 11 times after he allegedly lunged at the officers with a knife.
U.S. District Judge James T. Moody ruled in favor of the city and the officers on March 30, determining Morgan and Slager’s actions were reasonable under the circumstances. (The city had filed a motion for a summary judgment, arguing there was no factual basis for the lawsuit, and the judge granted it.)
“The officers’ affidavits demonstrate that the officers used deadly force against Szuflita in response to the fact that Szuflita brandished a deadly weapon — here, a knife — at Officer Morgan and moved aggressively toward Officer Morgan with the weapon in hand.”
The lawsuit was filed by Szuflita’s estate, his mother, Ruby Szuflita, and his two children. Arguing against the summary judgment, they said the city had failed to show the officers’ actions were reasonable.
They noted that neither officer identified the type of knife Szuflita used, and that it could have been a plastic one, and not put the officers in imminent danger.
The judge said such an inference was not reasonable — and likened it to inferring that an officer who said a suspect had a “gun” actually saw a water gun.
“Though the officers do not identify the precise type of knife at issue, the officers do describe the instrument as both a ‘knife’ and a ‘deadly weapon.’ ... Perhaps it can be reasonably inferred that the knife was as small knife, but even a small knife can be deadly.”
The family said the officers never explained why lesser force, such as a taser, was not used on Szuflita, making the court “left to wonder” why.
The judge noted that it was not the focus to examine whether a lesser or alternative use of force should have been used.
“The focus of the inquiry in an excessive force case is whether the force used was reasonable under the circumstances,” the judge wrote in his order.
After an investigation by the St. Joseph County Metro Homicide Unit, Prosecutor Michael Dvorak concluded the officers had committed no crimes and were justified in the shooting.
Morgan remains a patrol police officer; Slager is now a detective, according to the police department.
Second case dismissed
A separate lawsuit, alleging excessive force and false arrest by Morgan, was also recently dismissed by a federal judge.
Kristy Dean and Werner O’Connell alleged that Morgan used excessive force on them when he responded to a call to their hotel room at Quality Inn in South Bend on Oct. 24, 2008.
The pair alleged Morgan knocked on their hotel room, grabbed O’Connell and pulled him out of the room, handcuffed him and stood on his spine. Dean said Morgan hit her in the head, threw her against a wall several times, and bashed her head against the wall, according to court documents.
Morgan then arrested them for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, according to court documents.