A $2 million excessive force lawsuit pending against the city of Alcoa and Blount County government would have been unnecessary if law enforcement had recognized obvious mental health issues and provided appropriate care, the attorney who filed the suit said this week.
Knoxville attorney Lance Baker told The Daily Times on Friday that his client, 38-year-old Maryville resident Annissa Mary Lee Colson, was showing obvious signs of a panic attack following her arrest nearly two years ago.
Alcoa officers and Blount County deputies not only showed complete disregard for her condition, Baker said, but assaulted and tormented her. The officers and deputies involved have denied any wrongdoing.
It began when Alcoa officers were called to Springbrook Road on June 23, 2015, when Colson’s then 10-year-old son fled her SUV.
The child told officers Colson had been drinking at Springbrook Pool. She began speeding when they left, causing him to pull the emergency brake and flee the vehicle in fear, according to police reports.
Colson crashed her SUV while chasing after the child and was placed under arrest. She was taken to Blount Memorial Hospital after agreeing to take a blood alcohol test. Once there, however, she changed her mind. That’s when the chain of events leading to the lawsuit really begin, Baker said.
“We don’t dispute what happened prior to her arrest,” Baker said. “(But) you have to segregate the two cases. So really, our case begins when Ms. Colson arrives at the hospital.”
Police say Colson became belligerent and combative when instructed to get back into the cruiser. The lawsuit states Colson suffers from anxiety and had a severe panic attack.
Alcoa Officers Dustin Cook and Arik Wilson are accused of ignoring signs of mental distress and refusing to give her time to catch her breath.
A struggle to put her back in the cruiser ensued, and Colson’s knee was reportedly injured. Baker said it happened when Wilson applied pressure to the area. Colson suffered a broken bone and tears in two ligaments as a result, Baker said.
Instead of wrestling with Colson, the officers should have recognized her distress and checked her into the hospital, Baker said.
“One of our essential arguments is that the officers were not trained well enough to appreciate what was really going on with Ms. Colson,” Baker said. “I think they mistook her panic disorders and anxiety, which was triggered by the arrest, as someone that’s being combative for combative sake.”
Once at the Blount County jail, Colson was tormented and abused by Blount County deputies, according to the lawsuit. It included Colson being strapped in a restraint chair for several hours, Baker said.
“She’s placed in a restraint chair for approximately seven hours without water, without any bathroom breaks whatsoever,” Baker said. “She’s forced to urinate on herself while both male and female officers laugh, essentially … it’s just not right and it’s just an egregious and inhumane way to treat someone, even inmates.”
Wilson and Cook are both named in the suit, which was filed last June in Knoxville’s U.S. District Court. Alcoa Police Lt. Keith Fletcher, former Alcoa Police Chief Philip Potter, Blount County Sheriff James Berrong, Blount County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Mandy England and Jennifer Russell, a nurse contracted to work at the Blount County jail, are also defendants.
Russell is accused of performing a shoddy examination of Colson’s knee when she was brought into the jail. Reports and police video of the arrest show Russell cleared her of any serious injuries.
“There’s no other word I can think of to describe Jennifer Russell’s treatment of Ms. Colson other than just pure incompetence,” Baker said. “She had no business being in that facility giving medical attention to anyone. Ms. Colson needed a real medical professional at that point in time, and that’s not what she got.”
Baker said Colson only recently was able to undergo surgery on her knee to repair the damage.
Responses have been filed on behalf of all defendants, except Russell, denying they did anything illegal or unnecessary. Russell filed a motion in November asking the case be dismissed. A decision on that motion has not been made.
Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Leon Jordan granted a request to throw out some of the claims levied against Berrong.
Baker still contends the whole thing could have been avoided.
“All they had to do was recognize that there’s something not right, it’s not just her being combative,” Baker said. “If they just would have checked her into the hospital and had a medical professional, or a nurse, check her out, I think this whole thing could have been avoided.”
Colson pleaded guilty in October to charges of DUI, reckless endangerment and resisting arrest. She was also charged with assaulting an officer, but it was dismissed as part of a plea agreement.