Susan Neese sees herself as an “involuntary advocate” of police reform.
She recalls her son, Michael Chad Breinholt, speaking to her years ago about how officials deal with people experiencing a mental health crisis. It was an issue that felt personal to him as someone living with addiction and depression.
But it wasn’t an issue that Neese thought would affect her — until a West Valley City sergeant fatally shot her son at the city’s police station.
As she viewed the body camera footage from the moments before Breinholt’s death, Neese said it was clear that her 31-year-old son was in emotional distress.
Three years later, the city of Neese has paid $350,000 to settle a lawsuit it filed against the department and its officials — and made changes it hopes will save someone’s life.
The lawsuit “was never intended to be for money,” Neese said. “It was always about the truth. Accountability. To change.”
The reforms include more training for West Valley police and updated protocols for how officers treat those arrested — like Breinholt — for drinking and driving, according to a document obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune in a recent public filing request.
West Valley City officials declined to comment on that story, saying they were not permitted to speak about the settlement.
Here’s what the city changed.
The Intoxilyzer room where Breinholt died is closed.
Breinholt was arrested on August 23, 2019 after he turned up drunk at his girlfriend’s workplace, according to records. Two officers arrested him for driving under the influence and took him to the police station for a more detailed breath test.
The officers sat with Breinholt, whose hands were tied, in a small room in the basement of City Hall where an intoxilyzer was kept.
Bodycam footage obtained by The Tribune shows Breinholt drunk and crying while in the room for hours. The shooting came after he briefly wrestled with two officers, one of whom yelled that Breinholt put his hand on the officer’s gun.
West Valley City Police Sgt. Tyler Longman then burst into the room, said, “You’re about to die, my friend,” and fatally shot Breinholt in the head.
Today, instead, officers are moving suspects to a more secure processing area inside the city’s new Public Safety Building, which opened in late 2019.
There, in the room where the Intoxilyzer is kept, is a bench to which a suspect’s hands or feet can be tied if necessary. And a holding cell is now available, city officials told Neese in a letter outlining what the department is doing differently in direct response to Breinholt’s death.
Weapons are banned from the new Intoxilyzer room.
After spending hours in the small room, Breinholt told officers he had a gun in his shoe. He didn’t, and officers didn’t take him seriously.
But they tried to take his shoe away from him. Breinholt – with his hands tied behind his back – put his hand on the gun of one of the officers. Two officers began wrestling with him, though the gun never left the holster, body camera footage shows.
At that point, Longman walked in and shot Breinholt in the head at point-blank range.
Now West Valley officials must lock their guns in a secure area before entering the new Intoxilyzer room, city officials wrote to Neese.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill found the Breinholt shooting legal, but called it “troubling” and said he believed the death could have been prevented.
[More: Read about the unusual shooting of Michael Chad Breinholt, and watch a video produced by the PBS series FRONTLINE.]
It was Longman’s third police shooting. He shot a man in 2007 and another in 2008; the prosecutor saw his actions as legally justified in both cases. He was never punished for any of the shootings in which he was involved.
Longman continues to serve as a sergeant for West Valley City, police officials confirmed last week.
Officers must complete 40 hours of crisis intervention training.
Body camera footage shows that Breinholt’s girlfriend and a co-worker told the two West Valley officers who arrested him that he had taken many pills and his breath smelled of alcohol.
“It looks like he just wants to commit suicide,” his girlfriend told police, later adding, “He just said he took all these pills to make him die.”
Officers arrested Breinholt for DUI and took him to the police station.
In this small room, Breinholt once fell from his chair to the floor. Officers left him there crying for more than 11 minutes before medics arrived to examine him, footage shows.
But the arresting officers didn’t tell the medics that Breinholt had taken pills or had suicidal thoughts, and the medics left.
Longman came to the station because the two arresting officers needed help filling out an electronic search warrant for a blood draw. Breinholt asked Longman to be taken to a psychiatric hospital, but the sergeant refused.
“I’m not going to sit here and play with you all night,” Longman told Breinholt. “You’ve already wasted our fire department’s time by letting them come out for some nonsense – okay? I’m not taking you to UNI [University Neuropsychiatric Institute]I’ll take you to jail.”
Neese’s lawsuit alleged officers “threatened and upset” her son before Longman fired the fatal shot.
Now officers must complete a 40-hour crisis intervention training course designed to help them better understand mental health issues and people in crisis.
Officers will also receive additional de-escalation training and learn how to tactically retreat from people who are committing suicide, officials said in the letter to Neese. West Valley City officials are also now being trained by KultureCity on how to respond to people with sensory needs.
Breinholt’s mother believes the extra training will have the greatest impact in saving lives and preventing something similar from happening again.
“They were clearly untrained for the emotional distress that Chad was in,” Neese said. “Had these changes occurred earlier, they could have recognized this and responded more appropriately to the clear signs that Chad was in such emotional distress.”
Her attorney, Colin King, said he hopes West Valley City’s increased training will continue for future officers and that more agencies across the state — and across the country — will implement similar teachings for their officers.
“Police officers are simply not trained to recognize that part of their duty is not to think first with their gun,” he said, “but to look at people with their hearts, minds and eyes and listen to what they’re saying.” ”
Neese reckons that she has become the advocate for police reform that she believes her son wants her to have. But she struggled to explain her reaction to the changes outlined in the city’s letter.
The feeling, she said, was not happiness. It doesn’t make her feel any better. She will never know, she said, whose death could have been prevented because of the changes made after her son’s death.
“I think [West Valley police] We still have a long way to go to be accountable,” she said. “Certainly the changes were a big step in the right direction.”
With the lawsuit settled, Neese feels her family can move forward in their grief. She said she felt like she sometimes heard Breinholt’s voice telling her, “Mom, be at peace.”
“I’m happy with everything I’ve done and will continue to do for Chad,” said Neese. “Of course I will never find peace in the traumatic and violent way he died. But I feel like if I continue to speak to his voice and spread awareness, I could somehow carry on some of his legacy.”
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https://www.sltrib.com/news/2022/05/24/heres-what-west-valley/ Here’s what changed in West Valley City after a sergeant shot and killed a handcuffed man at a police station