A federal jury thought that paralyzed San Jose resident Hung Lam deserved some of the blame for getting shot by acting erratically and holding a knife. But they awarded him $11.3 million anyway because they didn’t think San Jose Police Officer Dondi West should have shot him in the back when he wasn’t threatening anyone.
The award in the civil rights lawsuit is more than double San Jose’s previous largest payout. The city signed off on a $4.95-million settlement in 2013 after police shot a man who was holding a toy gun.
Most of Lam’s award, $8.3 million, is for economic compensation; $3 million is for emotional distress. The jury found the officer was negligent and used excessive force, and that Lam’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated.
Lam, 36, has been a wheelchair-bound paraplegic since being shot in January 2014 during a domestic dispute at home with his boyfriend. Someone called the police and reported a man was acting as if he were having a mental breakdown.
They may have gotten that impression because Lam was standing in his front yard, holding a knife to his abdomen and threatening to commit suicide, according to the complaint (pdf) filed by Lam’s attorney. Lam, a Vietnamese restaurateur who came to the U.S. in 2010, was also holding a cellphone in his other hand, talking to a concerned neighbor.
A retired couple next door observed the event as it unfolded. The wife, Helen Anderson, is a retired San Mateo County deputy sheriff. She testified that Lam didn’t seem to pose a threat to anyone but himself. Standard operating procedure is to de-escalate that kind of situation.
But Officer West, a 23-year veteran, bound toward Lam screaming orders to drop the knife and get on the ground, according to the complaint. Lam’s back was to her as he talked to the neighbor.
When the officer got to within 10 or 15 feet, she shot him twice in the back. West said Lam wheeled around and threatened her with the knife while she backed up into some bushes. Assault charges were filed against Lam, but they were later dropped.
The verdict comes amid nationwide protests and debate over authorities’ use of force against suspects in nonthreatening situations.