HOUSTON – A Fort Bend County family is seeking justice in the form of a federal lawsuit.
Pam and Steve Hobart lost their son after he was gunned down by a Stafford police officer.
Aaron Hobart, 19, was shot and killed in February after his parents called police for a crisis intervention team. Their son had been behaving irrationally and suffered from mental illness.
Instead of getting the crisis intervention team, Stafford police dispatched an officer, according to the lawsuit. The Hobarts say that officer had no experience in dealing with mental illness.
When their son tried to leave he was shot five times by the officer. The Hobarts filed their lawsuit in federal count.
Stafford police issued this statement saying:
“Grand jury…determined the officer’s actions were justified under the deadly circumstances created by Aaron…”
A plea to spare other parents
Couple sues over 19-year-old’s fatal shooting by Stafford policeman
By MARY FLOOD
Pam and Steve Hobart brought their grief and a lawsuit to the federal courthouse Thursday morning.
The couple stood in the humidity and sunshine with placards showing pictures and the poetry of their 19-year-old son, shot in February by a Stafford police officer who answered a 911 call seeking help to get the mentally ill young man to the hospital.
“We don’t want this to happen to anyone else’s son or daughter,” Pam Hobart said.
A dozen folks from their church stood on the sidewalk behind the Hobarts and their attorneys, who had just sued the city of Stafford, its police chief and the officer who shot their son.
Officer Jesus Estrada was cleared by a Fort Bend grand jury, and the city issued a statement Thursday saying officials are sympathetic to the Hobarts’ loss but that it was the result of their son’s violent attack on the officer.
The Hobarts said they called police for help to get their mentally unstable son to the hospital. Instead, the unarmed, barefoot young man in a T-shirt and shorts was shot before their eyes five times.
The couple’s lawsuit charges include unconstitutional use of deadly force, assault and battery, violations of the Americans with Disability Act, and failure to supervise and train. The suit asks for unspecified damages and for an injunction to keep the Stafford Police Department from similar actions in the future.
“The police don’t tell you the truth. They don’t say, ‘We don’t have a crisis intervention team,’” said a tearful and distraught Pam Hobart as she recalled for reporters the night she dialed 911 on the advice of her son’s psychiatrist.
She said her son, Aaron Hobart, was shot by Estrada on Feb. 18 as he tried to get past the officer to leave the house. She wondered why Estrada didn’t use his hands, his feet, his pepper spray or his night stick, rather than shoot and kill her son.
“He started firing and I shut my eyes, and it was over in a couple of seconds, and our son was lying face down in a pool of blood,” Pam Hobart said. She said the first shot was enough to stop her son, and a subsequent shot killed him.
The city of Stafford’s statement about the case said Aaron Hobart “charged and viciously attacked the officer. The officer believed his life was in jeopardy.” The city release stated its officials are unaware of a legitimate basis for a lawsuit over this incident.
Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the suit was filed in part because the officer had no extra training to deal with the mentally ill, and the family wants small cities that are ill-equipped to handle these situations to understand the dire consequences.
Similar case unsuccessful
In January a Houston federal jury, sitting on a somewhat similar lawsuit out of LaPorte, rejected the surviving family’s request for $8 million over four La Porte police officers gunning down a mentally ill man who they said threatened them with a screwdriver.
That federal jury found the officers were justified in the October 2001 shooting of 38-year-old Bob Meadours when they first fired a “beanbag” at him to get him to drop the tool, then fired 13 times after he disregarded officers’ instructions.
COUPLE FILES FEDERAL LAWSUIT AGAINST CITY OF STAFFORD, POLICE CHIEF, AND OFFICER FOR EXECUTING THEIR SON DURING A MENTAL HEALTH CALL
Residents Challenge Stafford’s Mental Health Response Procedures
Houston attorney Tommy Gillaspie and the Texas Civil Rights Project filed suit in U.S. District Court in Houston on behalf of Steve and Pam Hobart against the City of Stafford and police officials. The suit results from the February 2009 shooting death of their nineteen-year-old son Aaron. The suit seeks damages and an injunction to stop the Stafford police from inadequately responding to future mental health service calls. The couple also seeks punitive damages against the police chief and the officer, who killed their son in their own home, before their eyes, as they watched helplessly.
On February 18, 2009, the Hobarts requested assistance from a Crisis Intervention Team to help with their son’s acute mental health situation. Emergency services dispatched assistance and informed the Hobarts that the responders could transport Aaron to a mental hospital. However, rather than dispatching mental health specialists, Stafford sent Officer Jesus Estrada, who lacked mental health training. The Hobarts informed Stafford that Aaron was unarmed and not under the influence. When Aaron saw the officer, he became distraught and tried to leave the house. While non-lethal alternatives were available, if needed, Estrada immediately pulled his .45 pistol, shot Aaron five times, and killed him.
Mr. and Mrs. Hobart said their son’s “death should never have happened. We are outraged by the betrayal by the Stafford police department.”
“The forensic evidence will establish that the first shot, the non-fatal one, knocked this young boy to the floor. Then, the officer shot several more times. The Hobarts asked for help, not an execution,” said Tommy Gillaspie, lead counsel for the Hobart family.
“This is a tragic example of the police shooting first and assessing the situation later – with deadly consequences,” said Jim Harrington, TCRP Director, who is co-counsel in the case. “Local governments have an obligation to reasonably accommodate mental illnesses, which includes training first responders how to handle mental health calls. An officer should never shoot an unarmed and non-threatening teenager in his own home, especially when non-lethal alternatives are readily available. No family should ever have to go through what the Hobarts have suffered.”