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Litchfield shooting: In suit, victim’s family says deputies lacked training

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office lacks the training and procedures to deal with people who have mental and emotional problems, according to a suit filed last week by the family of a suicidal Litchfield woman who was shot and killed by a deputy last year. The civil suit against Georgetown County and the sheriff’s office alleges negligence and wrongful death.

The deputy said the woman came at him with a knife and the 15th Circuit solicitor’s office found no evidence of criminal conduct by the officer, Joseph Wilson.

Sheriff Lane Cribb said he had not seen the suit, but had expected one would be filed. He said deputies do get mental health training, “but they’re not psychiatrists.”

“We couldn’t be an accredited agency if we didn’t have the right kind of training,” he added.

Reta Abbott called the sheriff’s office just before 5 p.m. on July 12 to say she had learned her daughter Valerie Harrington, 36, made comments on Facebook about ending her life. Harrington was involved in a custody dispute over her daughter and had recently been fired from her job as an engineer at International Paper. Abbott, who lives in Alabama, had been to Litchfield the day before. “She needs to be in a hospital,” Abbott told a dispatcher.

Abbott filed suit as the representative of her daughter’s estate. She also named Wilson and two other deputies who entered Harrington’s apartment at Litchfield Oaks. The deputies “having been made aware that the decedent suffered from a psychological condition and was in need of mental health treatment, forcibly entered her apartment … and engaged in a confrontation.”

According to a report from the State Law Enforcement Division, the deputies got a key from a property manager when Harrington did not answer the deputies’ knocking. They learned from a paralegal at the firm that represented Harrington in her divorce that Harrington was locked in the bathroom with a knife. Wilson said Harrington was “agitated” and told them to get out.

“None of the defendants contacted a mental health facility, a crisis intervention team, a medical professional, or any other entity to assist in rendering aid” to Harrington, the suit claims. Records show that Midway Fire and Rescue was called to stand by so Harrington could be placed in emergency protective custody and in case she harmed herself. Recordings of 911 calls obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request show Wilson also spoke to Abbott by phone before entering Harrington’s apartment.

Abbott’s suit claims the deputies were not trained “to handle the situation they were presented with, that of a non-cooperative mentally ill individual.” The sheriff’s office was negligent in failing to provide proper training and in allowing them to respond to the call, the suit claims.

As a result, Harrington “was not only killed but also was subjected to extreme pain, mental anguish, emotional distress, and suffering, including conscientiously realizing that she would probably die,” the suit claims.

Harrington came out of the bathroom holding a beer and a cigarette in her left hand, deputies told SLED. She reached back into the room for the knife. Wilson, Brandon Siratt and Dawud Aswad were in the living room. They yelled at Harrington to put down the knife. She said “they” were trying to kill her, something she had also told a neighbor.

“I told Valerie if she would put the knife down we could help her,” Wilson told SLED. “Valerie looked at me and had a ‘1,000 yard stare.’ ”

As she walked forward with the knife raised, Aswad fired a Taser. Only one of the two probes hit Harrington. Wilson said she was close enough to him that they could have raised their arms and touched fingertips. He said he feared for his life and fired.

Investigators found 15 shell casings on the floor of Harrington’s apartment. SLED redacted the coroner’s autopsy report from the 271 pages it released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. A copy of the autopsy report obtained by the Coastal Observer shows she was hit by 11 bullets. Seven were recovered from her body.

Harrington died without leaving a will. Her daughter, who was 3 at the time, is her sole heir. The suit also alleges constitutional violations by the defendants. It asks for actual, consequential and punitive damages.

Cribb said the suit, once served on his office, would be turned over to the county attorney and the state Insurance Reserve Fund.

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