March 09, 2016 News » Cover Story

CSPD officers face possible lawsuit for beating Alzheimer's patient 

Just after 5 p.m. on July 29, 2015, two Colorado Springs cops raced with lights and sirens to a burglary in progress. They'd been told 72-year-old Albert Schmeiler, who has Alzheimer's disease, could be "very violent."

But on their arrival, Officers David Isue and Nicholas Ryland found Schmeiler calmly standing in the driveway with his mother-in-law, Margo Alvarez, according to a police report.

Alvarez "immediately" told officers of Schmeiler's diagnosis and that he was "possibly confused about what was going on," the report says.

Nevertheless, within minutes, the officers struck Schmeiler in the face and body, and then, with a running start, knocked him out cold and caused a head injury that landed him in the hospital for a week. After he was released, on Aug. 7, he was arrested and charged with three criminal counts.

click to enlarge Albert Schmeiler suffered a head wound from his encounter with police. - CSPD CASE REPORT
  • CSPD case report
  • Albert Schmeiler suffered a head wound from his encounter with police.

The incident triggered the threat of a lawsuit for excessive use of force, as well as an Internal Affairs investigation, which is pending. It also raises questions about how the department handles special populations. Documents obtained by the Independent through open-records requests show a possible gap in officer training and policy compliance, such as a mandate that mental health care provider AspenPointe be consulted when police deal with people with psychological issues.

That's important, because thousands in the Pikes Peak region suffer from Alzheimer's and other disabilities. The prevalence of the disease nationwide is expected to increase by 34 percent within the next 10 years, to 7.1 million, while in Colorado the forecast predicts a 41.5 percent increase to 92,000, according to the Chicago-based American Alzheimer's Association.

"As a community, we need people who can identify disability/mental health crises and de-escalate," says Patricia Yeager, CEO of the Independence Center, which serves people with disabilities. "Certainly this event highlights the need for more training on disability issues such as Alzheimer's disease and de-escalation practices."

The burglary call that day turned out to be a misunderstanding. Schmeiler owns the house in the 5300 block of Bunk House Lane, which was rented to his wife's sister, her husband and their young son. Schmeiler had gone there to confront his brother-in-law with a wild, untrue accusation that arose from confusion seeded in a 50-year-old memory, according to police reports.

Schmeiler's wife, Peggy, told officers her husband was diagnosed two years before and was taking medication due to his aggressive behavior. She said she was surprised he had driven to the home: He doesn't like to drive due to his medical condition.

Peggy Schmeiler told police she received a call from her sister, Sharon Eddy, saying Eddy's then-12-year-old son had called to tell her Schmeiler was breaking into the house. Eddy, who was across town, called her mother, Margot Alvarez, who was closer, and Alvarez rushed to the house.

"She [Peggy Schmeiler] stated Mr. Schmeiler had gotten the idea that she was cheating on him with Ms. Eddy's husband," Ryland's report says. "Ms. Schmeiler stated he was also not making sense saying something about her sister's husband running down the street in his underwear. Ms. Schmeiler said Mr. Schmeiler told her a story once of how he was involved in a physical altercation when he was 20 years old where he tripped the suspect who was running down the street in his underwear."

As Alvarez arrived, Schmeiler was getting into his vehicle to leave. He had entered the house through an unlocked back door. Inside, he beat on the door to a bedroom where the boy was hiding, though he never gained entry. He was calm when Alvarez got there.

That is how Ryland and Isue found him, not knowing any of that history as they pulled up.

In fact, Ryland gave "an okay over the radio" about the call — no backup was needed. Isue went to the house to check on the boy.

Schmeiler told Ryland he didn't know why police were called because he owns the home, which he rents to family members, and that no one was inside anyway.

"I informed him that just because he owned the residence," Ryland's report says, "doesn't mean he can enter it whenever he wanted to."

That comment apparently didn't sit well with Schmeiler, who "became immediately upset and told me to not talk to him that way," the officer reports. "I informed him that I was just trying to talk to him about the situation but he continued to become more agitated. I told him he needed to calm down or I would put him in the back of my police vehicle. Mr. Schmeiler stated he would like to see [me] try and stated he would punch me in the face."

When Ryland "ordered" Schmeiler to "turn around and place his hands behind his back," Schmeiler refused "and balled up his hands into fists and raised his shoulders in a threatening manner," Ryland's report says.

Ryland then "grabbed" his right arm and shoulder and loudly ordered him to turn around and be handcuffed. Schmeiler, 5 feet 11 inches tall and 220 pounds, then assumed "a boxing stance" and swung his right fist at Ryland twice. Ryland, 6 feet tall and 165 pounds, dodged the punches and retaliated by striking Schmeiler in the face with his right fist.

Stunned, Schmeiler took a step backward but again raised his fists. Ryland then kicked Schmeiler on the left side of his body, causing him to bend over. But yet again, he raised his fists, Ryland's report said.

"I was preparing to strike Mr. Schmeiler a third time when Officer Isue came from my left and ran into the suspect, knocking him down to the ground," Ryland says.

According to Isue, who stands just over 6 feet tall and weighs 185 pounds, "I sprinted directly toward the suspect and using both of my forearms, I struck the suspect on his right side, knocking him to the ground quickly ending the confrontation."

With Schmeiler unconscious, the officers cuffed his hands behind his back. When he came to a few minutes later, he yelled and swore, threatening the officers. He continued to be combative after an ambulance pulled up.

click to enlarge Schmeiler was handcuffed to a gurney in the ambulance. - CSPD CASE REPORT
  • CSPD case report
  • Schmeiler was handcuffed to a gurney in the ambulance.

Officer Allison Detwiler, who responded as backup, says in her report that Schmeiler was on the ground and cuffed when she arrived, yelling profanities at the police, firefighters and ambulance staff, who cuffed him to a gurney.

At the hospital, Schmeiler's tirade continued "to the point that the hospital staff had to put him in soft restraints and sedate him."

At St. Francis Hospital Medical Center, doctors determined that he had a "brain bleed" and needed to be admitted; that night he was transferred to the intensive care unit at Penrose Main.

Under questioning from Ryland's and Isue's supervisor, Sgt. William Betts, Schmeiler answered routine questions accurately that first night, such as who is president and what year it is, telling Betts they were "stupid questions."

In other words, Schmeiler seemed normal, leading Betts to tell a detective "that Mr. Schmeiler was supposed to have [Alzheimer's] but at this time it was undetermined whether this diagnosis was correct," despite family members having told officers of his condition.

Jerry Perry, a neighbor on Bunk House Lane who witnessed the scuffle, told police their actions were "appropriate," and reiterated that opinion in an interview with the Indy.

Perry says Schmeiler, who he'd heard was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, was combative with police on that day, although in mid-February when he saw Schmeiler, "he seemed OK." Schmeiler had shown up next door to clear out the rental house in order to sell it and was cordial, Perry reports.

"He recognized me. He smiled. We shook hands and said, 'Hi, how are you?' All that sort of stuff," Perry says. "I was going to lay claim to some boards, and he said, 'Take all of it if you like.'"

But Perry also says Schmeiler has memory problems, noting, "If you asked him what happened this morning, he would not know."

Swings from perfectly normal to completely lost are to be expected from those with Alzheimer's, says Barbara Caudle, regional director in Colorado Springs with the Alzheimer's Association Colorado chapter.

"It is important to be aware that people with dementia might look better outwardly than they really are, cognitively," she says via email.

"Because of short term memory loss, they might think that they are living in another period of their lives, and don't remember important events. Logic, reason, problem-solving, and perception of reality change over time. Delusions, hallucinations, and suspiciousness are quite common, especially in the middle stages."

The association urges families to inform dispatchers of medical conditions, which they did in Schmeiler's case.

Yeager, with the Independence Center, allows that policing is a tough job.

"These days it is much more complicated to be a police officer in my view," she says in an email.

"They are expected to recognize terrorist threats, domestic violence, mental health issues, and all sorts of other disability issues and know how to deal successfully with each of them," Yeager continues. "But their training may be more in line with identifying threats to public safety and that may be the mindset that led them to become police officers in the first place."

Ensuring officer safety was the reason cited by Isue in his report for why he knocked Schmeiler down.

click to enlarge Schmeiler also suffered other injuries from being knocked down. - CSPD CASE REPORT
  • CSPD case report
  • Schmeiler also suffered other injuries from being knocked down.

How officers are trained to deal with those with mental disabilities is crucial to everyone's safety, according to a June 30, 2015, report in The Washington Post. The report analyzed police killings and found that more than half involved police agencies that failed to provide officers with state-of-the-art training in coping with the mentally ill.

In fact, The Post reported, many cases involved officers who used tactics that "quickly made a volatile situation even more dangerous." All that adds up to needless violence, according to criminal justice experts, the report said.

The CSPD policy on dealing with mentally ill persons permits police intervention "only when their behavior or actions demonstrate actual danger to themselves or others, or a reasonable probability of such danger."

The policy also states that if danger is indicated, the primary concern is "to protect the mentally ill person and others."

"Officers shall direct their efforts to assure proper medical examinations and supervision of all persons experiencing such personal crises," the policy continues, "and shall act in cooperation with AspenPoint[e] Health [Care] Services." The policy also says Crisis Intervention Team-trained officers should be called when possible.

But AspenPointe was never called in the Schmeiler case, and there's no indication that a CIT officer was dispatched, police reports show.

Asked about that, police spokesperson Lt. Catherine Buckley says via email, "The suspect was transported by AMR [American Medical Response] to an emergency room for medical treatment," and notes Ryland is CIT certified.

But Ryland's training came in March 2008, two years after he was hired.

Isue, on the force since October 2012, hasn't had any CIT training since he went through the training academy. There, recruits receive four hours of training from the department's psychologist in how to identify and handle persons with mental illness, how to de-escalate a situation using "verbal containment," how to identify behaviors associated with psychological disorders, and how to communicate with people in crisis, in conformance with requirements by the Peace Officers Standards and Training board.

The department conducted 40-hour CIT training two times in 2012, not at all in 2013, once in 2014 and three times in 2015, Buckley says.

CSPD officers were offered a four-hour, non-mandatory course in 2011 on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 2014, four optional classes were offered on dealing with autistic people.

This year, the department will offer a one-hour in-service training that provides "some insight to recognizing PTSD and de-escalation techniques when dealing with those in crisis," Buckley says.

Officers were also offered training in 2014 and 2015 in elder-abuse classes that "touch on some mental health issues" relating to Alzheimer's and dementia.

The CSPD refused to release response to aggression forms filed by the officers for the Schmeiler takedown, citing the "ongoing investigation of the incident currently being conducted by CSPD IA investigators," as well as the "chilling effect" the release would have on the supervisors' ability "to conduct frank and meaningful analysis and review of use of force records" and IA investigations.

Ryland, according to Schmeiler's lawyer Steven Rodemer's Dec. 3 claim letter, has faced "numerous prior allegations of excessive force," but the department also refused to release past IA reports for Ryland and Isue, saying disclosure "would be contrary to the public interest."

Rodemer's claim letter, which seeks damages in excess of $100,000, notes Schmeiler suffered three brain injuries that day in July that are consistent with blows to the skull.

"It is obvious [Schmeiler] was confused, and didn't know what was happening," Rodemer writes. "The officers had numerous less-than-lethal options available to subdue [him].... While the amount of force may have been appropriate for a younger, healthier person, it amounted to deadly force when inflicted upon [Schmeiler]."

Schmeiler's wife declined to comment. But a family member who wished to remain unnamed says the outcome might have been different had Schmeiler not been knocked unconscious — the reason police called an ambulance, which took Schmeiler to the hospital where the brain injury was discovered.

"If you knock somebody down, slam their head, you better have them checked out," the family member says. "They could be bleeding and you can't see it. If they would have taken him to jail that night, he would have died that night."

Schmeiler spent three days in jail before bonding out. He was charged with felony trespassing, obstructing a peace officer and resisting arrest.

The District Attorney's Office reports that on Jan. 4, 2016 a judge noted "an evaluation found the defendant was permanently incompetent."

The charges were dismissed.

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