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Family of father who died in struggle with Pasadena police files federal lawsuit

Reginald Thomas
A photo of Reginald Thomas provided by his brother-in-law, Forrest Elder.
(Family photo)

The family of a mentally ill man who died during a struggle with Pasadena officers in September has filed suit in federal court alleging that police violated his and his family’s civil rights by using excessive force and then conspired cover up evidence of their recklessness.

Reginald Thomas Jr.’s mental health issues were well-known to officers in the Pasadena Police Department and they should have called in a crisis response team to de-escalate the situation, said the plaintiff’s lawyer, Caree Harper.

The suit, which seeks damages as well as compensation for legal and funeral expenses, alleges that Pasadena Police have a practice of using excessive force against black men like Thomas and that they are never disciplined for their behavior.

“We really would like to get something in place changing how officers respond to a known mental health crisis,” Harper said. “We want to have change.”

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Named in the lawsuit are the six officers who were directly involved in the altercation with Thomas: Thomas Butler, Robert Griffith, Michael Orosco, Philip Poirier, Raphael Santiago and Aaron Villacana. Four other officers who responded to the scene were also sued.

The lawsuit alleges that officers attempted to cover up the deadly struggle by removing the hard drive for a surveillance camera system within the complex. Officers, according to the suit, removed the hard drive without a search warrant and manipulated the information it contained. 

The alleged cover-up continued when the department placed a “security hold” on Thomas’ autopsy results, according to the lawsuit.

“The unwarranted, illegal withholding of a public document is specific conspiratorial effort to undermine transparency and delay and quell public outrage over the killing of Reginald Thomas,” the lawsuit contends.

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City spokesman William Boyer said Pasadena hasn’t been served with the lawsuit, but was aware of the legal action. He declined to comment, saying the city does not make statements on pending litigation.

According to the lawsuit, Thomas was visiting his girlfriend, Shainie Lindsey, and several of his children, at Lindsey’s apartment in the 200 block of East Orange Grove Boulevard.

“At some point during the visit, in the early morning hours, Mr. Thomas believed that his family was in danger so he called the police believing they could and would help — he was wrong,” the lawsuit says.

A statement from the Police Department said that police received a call about 2:45 a.m. from “a minor requesting assistance with a family disturbance” involving Thomas, who was “armed with a knife and a fire extinguisher.”

When officers arrived at the Orange Grove Gardens apartment complex, the police statement said, Thomas was “still armed with the knife and fire extinguisher.”  

Police said Thomas refused to cooperate with officers. According to the lawsuit, however, officers didn’t give him enough time to understand and comply with the orders.

Thomas returned to the apartment and tried to barricade himself inside, authorities said. Officers fired their Tasers, temporarily incapacitating him, according to police.

The lawsuit alleges that Thomas dropped the knife and fell to the ground after he was shocked by a  Taser. Then a second officer fired another Taser, causing Thomas to release the extinguisher.

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The lawsuit contends that officers punched and kicked Thomas as he screamed for his mother and that another officer used a stun gun on him.

“As additional officers arrived, they ‘piled on’ to Mr. Thomas’ body,” the lawsuit said.

One officer then applied a knee to Thomas’ neck, Harper said.

That officer’s action left Thomas “speechless and finally lifeless, intentionally squeezing the life out of Mr. Thomas,” the lawsuit alleges.

According to the lawsuit, there was no threat of violence to Thomas’ girlfriend and children.

“No exigent circumstances existed, and time was on the side of the first responders to negotiate and take a peaceful approach to resolve the incident,” the lawsuit contends. “Instead of choosing to assist Thomas in dealing with the mental health crisis they chose to kill him.”

Authorities released grainy security camera video and the audio of a 911 call made by someone in the apartment, who said Thomas was armed with a knife but had not threatened those in the apartment with it.

The caller said that Thomas was on drugs and that he didn’t know if Thomas had “any mental conditions.”

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Thomas was a father of eight, known to his family by the nickname “Daddy Daycare.” 

The sheriff’s Homicide Bureau, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and the coroner’s office are investigating Thomas’ death, authorities said. The Pasadena Police Department is also conducting an administrative investigation.

Harper said she wants the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Police Department and oversee its policing practices. She also thinks there is enough evidence to criminally charge the officers with Thomas’ death.

“Pasadena is very, very scary,” Harper said. “Pasadena police can do whatever they want and go unchallenged.”

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

For breaking news in California, follow @VeronicaRochaLA on Twitter.

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