Thursday, March 27, 2008

We knew this lawsuit was coming, but here the police should prevail.

Last year, a forty-five year old New York woman named Carol Gotbaum was detained by Phoenix police officers on a charge of disorderly conduct at the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport. She had become enraged after missing a connecting flight to Tucson, and they put her in an airport holding cell. Within a few minutes, she had strangled herself and was dead.

It later came out that she was a disturbed individual, who was actually on her way to Tucson to enter an alcohol treatment facility. Her husband, upon learning that his wife was in police custody, called and urged police to check on her, informing them that she was 'suicidal'. But he called after she had already been dead for an hour.

What made this case unusual is that her family is politically powerful and well-connected in New York City. Her mother in law is reputedly second in line for the mayor's office. People get arrested for disorderly conduct in airports all the time (see Larry Craig.) However her family has the financial and political muscle to fight back, and they are. They are suing for $8 million, to be precise.

(CNN) -- The family of a woman who died last year while in police custody at Phoenix, Arizona's, Sky Harbor International Airport filed an $8 million claim Wednesday against the city of Phoenix and its police department, the first step in filing a wrongful death suit.

Carol Gotbaum, a 45-year-old mother of three from New York traveling to Tucson, Arizona, to enter an alcohol rehabilitation center, was taken into custody by Phoenix police on September 28 after she missed her connecting flight and flew into a rage.

She was left alone in a holding cell at the airport and subsequently died, accidentally strangling herself while trying to escape her handcuffs.

The claim accuses the Police Department of using "excessive and unreasonable force" on Gotbaum and failing to follow its own procedures in handling people who are obviously disturbed.

"Good people here made lethal, unreasonable mistakes, with catastrophic results for Carol, her three small children and for her husband," the claim says.

Gotbaum was treated "as if she was a dangerous criminal, rather than as a sick, intoxicated and vulnerable person she was," it says. "She had no weapon and never threatened anyone."

City attorneys responded to the claim, saying that police officers acted properly and responsibly in restraining Gotbaum.

Certainly there is a good case that could be made here, but the truth is that when police make an arrest at an airport because someone is distraught, they have exactly that-- a distraught individual (and often an intoxicated, distraught individual, as Mrs. Gotbaum was.) There are many, many reasons why people can be upset, at an airport or anyplace else (and the simple act of getting arrested itself is likely to increase stress levels in most people, especially if they've never been arrested before), but when police make an arrest they follow procedure (which does include taking standard measures to prevent someone from hurting themselves). Carol Gotbaum was clearly at a much higher risk of that kind of thing, but there was no reason why Phoenix police would know that.

To be honest, I have one question. Flying is known to be a very stressful act (we aren't in the 'Fly the friendly skies' era anymore, thanks to airline deregulation which has placed a premium on the packing and delivery of people as cargo and has de-emphasized an enjoyable flying experience.) Things like missing flights, as well as missing luggage, getting 'bumped' off a flight, spending hours in a cramped position, flight delays and cancellations and other stressful things happen all the time. If Carol Gotbaum was in such a fragile mental state, why did not the family assign someone (or even hire someone) to accompany her and make sure she got to the treatment facility? Heck, if she had an alcohol problem she required treatment for in a place thousands of miles from home then why would they let her get on a flight unattended? She is known to have consumed alcohol on the flight she got off of, and the story I linked to describes her as 'intoxicated.' Alcohol, which she certainly had access to in the air, is known to be fuel for the kind of volatile situations like the one she was involved in.

I feel for her husband and her family, but I feel that they are as much (or more) to blame for her death as is the Phoenix police department.

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