Pierce County to pay $750K, better train deputies in wake of mentally ill man’s death

By Adam Lynn | The News Tribune

Pierce County has agreed to pay $750,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of a mentally ill man who died after a run-in with sheriff’s deputies last year.

The Sheriff’s Department also has agreed as part of the settlement to implement further training for its deputies in the handling of calls involving mentally ill people.

Attorney Nathan Roberts, who represented the family of Ronald Hillstrom, said the agreement achieved the goals of his clients.

“Their primary purpose in bringing the case was to see that something like this didn’t happen to another family,” Robert said.

Sheriff Paul Pastor on Thursday issued a statement about the settlement through spokesman Ed Troyer.

“The death of Mr. Hillstrom is extremely unfortunate and undesirable,” Pastor said. “Too often our deputies must intervene to deal with mentally ill citizens who cannot get the treatment they need. Without treatment, the implications can be terrible for all involved.”

Hillstorm, 44, died May 11 after struggling with deputies assigned to the University Place Police Department in the 4400 block of 76th Avenue West.

People who live in the area called police after seeing Hillstrom walking in circles, yelling for help and acting strangely.

Troyer said at the time that Hillstrom was carrying a screwdriver, was extremely agitated and refused to obey deputies’ commands.

At one point, four deputies physically engaged Hillstrom, who was shocked with a Taser, hog-tied and punched.

Hillstrom eventually was subdued, and medical aid was called to take him to a hospital for treatment of a head laceration. He suffered cardiac arrest on the way and died.

An autopsy showed Hillstrom suffered multiple blunt force injuries, a broken nose and ribs. He also had trace amounts of cocaine in his system.

His parents filed suit in U.S. District Court in Tacoma in October. They originally sought $10 million in damages.

Hillstrom had a history of mental illness and run-ins with police, court documents show.

Roberts said Thursday it was clear the sheriff’s deputies, because of their lack of training, treated Hillstrom as a criminal suspect instead of a mentally ill person who needed help.

He said the Hillstrom family hopes the increased training will better prepare deputies for handing similar situations.

Troyer said Thursday that MultiCare Mental Health will teach a three-hour unit of “de-escalation” techniques during deputies’ annual in-service training.

The block will help deputies recognized symptoms of mental illness, educate them on triggers that might agitate a mentally ill person and provide strategies for de-escalating situations without using force if possible.

Deputies also will receive two hours of instruction on better documenting their applications of force, Troyer said, and the department’s defensive tactics and firearms training instructors will incorporate de-escalation techniques into their curriculum.

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