On the morning of Dec. 10, 2018, Kristin Hart called 911 because her husband, Kyle Hart, had cut himself multiple times with a knife in a suicide attempt.
Within 30 seconds of their arrival, one of the two responding police officers shot and killed Kyle Hart in the backyard of their Redwood City home.
Nearly three years later, lawyers on Wednesday announced the filing of a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Kristin Hart against Redwood City, the chief of police and the two responding officers.
“Kyle was a sick person in need of help, and rather than provide the help that they are trained to give, the police killed him,” Kristin Hart said. “Kyle deserved better. The citizens of Redwood City deserve better.”
Through tears, Kristin Hart described Kyle Hart Wednesday as her best friend, a wonderful husband and a devoted father. The pair were both teachers, and met in college in 2005. They had recently moved to Redwood City, which was Kyle’s hometown, and hoped to raise their children there, Kristin said; their daughter Ellie was born three days prior to his death.
The lawsuit alleges that Kyle Hart’s civil rights were violated by an excessive use of force, and makes a claim on behalf of his wife and children, who attorney John Burris says “have suffered and will continue to suffer as a consequence of this shooting.”
The officers involved in the shooting did not face criminal charges and are still employed by the department. San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe found they “acted lawfully” because Kyle Hart was allegedly coming toward them with a knife. One of the officers attempted to deploy a taser, and when it did not work properly, the other officer shot Kyle Hart.
Wagstaffe on Wednesday reaffirmed his 2018 decision that the shooting was lawful conduct by the officers, but added that because there are different standards for a criminal suit versus a civil suit, there may still be a basis for a civil suit.
“From our perspective … what the officers did did not violate California law on the use of force against the individual,” Wagstaffe said. “In my conclusion they had acted in lawful self defense, but again when I’m judging something, I’m doing it on a criminal standard based on proof beyond reasonable doubt. A civil suit, we’ll see where it lands on that line.”
Kristin Hart said she hopes the lawsuit will prompt a change in the way the Redwood Police Department responds to mental health crises.
“Thus far, there has been no acknowledgement that mental health response is an area where the police even need to improve,” Kristin Hart said. “What I would love to see come out of this is a comprehensive approach for how Redwood City police respond to a person in mental crisis.
Kristin Hart added that over the past two years she has talked with the city multiple times about making changes so that “what happened to Kyle does not happen to anyone else,” which she says is her primary goal.
In a statement, Redwood City officials said while they couldn’t comment on active litigation, the city has since partnered with San Mateo County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services to establish a pilot program for dealing with people in mental health crises.
“The loss of life is always tragic, as is the case with the death of Mr. Hart. City staff have appreciated the opportunity to work with the Hart family in the past and to listen to their recommendations on policing policies,” Redwood City officials said.
Burris said he does not believe police officers should be the first responders when an individual is having a mental crisis; instead, sociologists, psychologists and other trained individuals should respond.
“In situations where family members call for help because their loved one is suffering under mental crisis, we have seen far too often that when the police arrive, instead of de-escalating the situation and taking control of the situation, they wind up killing the person, and killing them under circumstances that are highly questionable,” Burris said.
“In a case like this, where it was pretty clear it was a significant mental health crisis, then a person with real experience at dealing with those kinds of issues should have been present,” Burris said. “Because even we know that when you have a situation like this with a mentally impaired person, you don’t yell and scream at them and tell them to drop something. You try to first have some communication with them and calm the situation down to let them know that you’re not there to harm them. And unfortunately, when you have guns present and drawn out, you create a hostile environment.”
Bay City News contributed to this report.