Steven Barrier family's 'wrongful death' lawsuit accuses Stamford police of 'inhuman treatment'

STAMFORD — A grieving mother is suing the city of Stamford, its police department and four police officers for the “wrongful death” of her 23-year-old son, who died while in custody nearly two years ago.

Valerie Jaddo claims her son Steven Barrier, who suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other disorders, was in “urgent” need of psychiatric care when police responded to her home on Oct. 22, 2019 on a domestic dispute call, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court.

Jaddo claims in the lawsuit that, instead of providing Barrier with care he needed, police showed up to their home with guns drawn and later subjected Barrier to “excessive force and inhuman treatment” due to the color of his skin and a mental disability.

That treatment, the lawsuit claims, contributed directly to Barrier’s death early the next morning — the day of his 23rd birthday.

“My son did not have to die,” Jaddo said in a press conference held remotely Tuesday afternoon. “He was having a mental health crisis, but instead of being treated by doctors and therapists, he was surrounded by police. I told them that my son needed urgent psychiatric help, but the police handcuffed my son and dragged him down a steep hill in the pouring rain. He was put into the back of a police car and died on the floor of a jail, surrounded by people who were untrained and uncaring. They laughed and they mocked while he died in front of them.”

Alan L. Fuchsberg, who represents Jaddo, alleges in the lawsuit that Stamford police violated Barrier’s civil rights when they “failed to reasonably accommodate Mr. Barrier’s mental health disability, wrongfully arrested him for displaying schizophrenic symptoms, and caused him to suffer unnecessary injury and indignity on account of their unlawful conduct.”

Police “used unreasonable and excessive force,” including dragging Barrier down a hill with his hands cuffed behind his back and “allowing his face to drag through puddles of water,” Fuchsberg claims.

The lawsuit specifically names four Stamford officers: Sgt. Michael Connelly, Lt. Douglas Dieso and officers Rhett Connelly and Troy Judge.

Fuchsberg claims the four officers “were deliberately indifferent to Mr. Barrier’s need for emergency psychiatric and medical health care and treatment.”

When Barrier showed signs of physical distress, including trouble breathing and later losing consciousness in the back of the police cruiser, the officers not only did not seek out medical attention but also made jokes at his expense, the lawsuit claims.

“(T)he Defendant Officers acted with a culpable state of mind and intentionally violated CIT training by acting aggressively, chasing, dragging, and taunting Mr. Barrier, which worsened his condition,” the lawsuit said.

The suit claims that by ignoring Barrier’s psychiatric needs and arresting him in the manner they did, the officers subjected Barrier to “extraordinary pain, culminating in his wrongful death.”

An autopsy conducted by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in 2019 concluded that Barrier died of a heart attack.

State Chief Medical Examiner James Gill specified that the cause of death was atherosclerotic coronary artery disease with contributing factors of bipolar disorder with psychotic features, a condition seen in some 20- and 30-year-olds that can cause agitation, stress and adrenaline.

But Jaddo didn’t buy the state’s explanation. She claimed her son did not have any history of heart problems.

The family of Barrier has questioned why the 23-year-old was not taken to the hospital instead of the police department the night he was apprehended. They say Barrier was in clear distress and was denied medical care.

Barrier, who lived on West Avenue, led police on a foot chase after his sister complained that he assaulted her. When police took Barrier into custody, the Stamford resident told them he was too tired to walk to the waiting cruiser, according to the footage released by then-Stamford State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo.

The video shows the officer driving the cruiser ask whether he should take Barrier to Stamford Hospital or the police department. The arresting officers tell him to take Barrier to police headquarters for booking on domestic assault charges.

Less than a minute into the ride, Barrier asks to have the air conditioning turned on, according to the footage. The officer driving the car rolls down a window in the cruiser. During the ride, Barrier is heard moaning. When the car arrives at the station, officers find him unresponsive and carry him into the station. Medics arrive five-and-a-half minutes later.

Barrier was then taken to Stamford Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 3:10 a.m., about 85 minutes after he was taken into custody.

During the Tuesday press conference, Fuchsberg claimed Stamford police officers violated protocol in four separate incidents during the arrest: by failing to have an ambulance on scene for a known psychiatric case, failing to call EMS when Barrier complained of weakness during his arrest, not transporting Barrier directly to the hospital and not the police department, and finally for not calling EMS immediately when they found him unconscious back at police headquarters.

“If someone is having a mental health crisis, they absolutely should not be treated by police in this way,” he said.

The city of Stamford and the Stamford Police Department were also named in the complaint for “negligent hiring, training, retention and supervision” of the four officers.

Police Chief Tim Shaw forwarded requests for comment to the city’s Law Department on Tuesday.

Kathryn Emmet, corporation counsel for Stamford, said the city, which also represents the four named officers, “does not comment” on pending litigation.

Jaddo is seeking compensatory and punitive damages as a part of the lawsuit.

Her co-plaintiff, the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, a nonprofit legal services organization dedicated to protecting civil rights and improving the lives of low-income persons with psychiatric disabilities living in Connecticut, is also asking for injunctive relief that would require the city and its police department to modernize their policies about how to handle mentally ill patients and calls for the establishment of a 24/7 non-police mental health community response team to respond to psychiatric emergencies, among other things.

The two parties are seeking a jury trial to settle the complaint.