$700K settlement in Polk Co. police shooting

SALEM, Ore. -- More than a year after Joshua Bolster, 29, was killed during an officer-involved shooting, Polk County, Salem and Monmouth police agencies have agreed to pay $700,000 and change their use-of-force and mental-crisis policies as part of a settlement with Bolster's family.

The Salem resident was shot by a Polk County Sheriff's deputy on the night of July 5, 2016, during a traffic stop along Highway 22 west of Salem.

Since then, Polk County deputies have been involved in two more shootings. A deputy fired his weapon twice during a traffic stop in Salem in September. No one was injured in that shooting.

Then last month, Silverton teen Baltazar Escalona-Baez was shot and killed during a confrontation with Polk County deputies on Highway 18 near Grand Ronde. Escalona-Baez, 17, was pulled over in connection with an armed carjacking in Salem.

Police have released few details about the events leading to Escalona-Baez's death, and a grand jury has not yet ruled on whether the shooting was justified.

"My family and I are deeply disturbed by the news of the death of yet another young person losing their life at the hands of local law enforcement," Bolster's aunt Marcia Perez said Monday in a family statement.

Mental health at issue in 2016 shooting

The evening of Bolster's death, Monmouth police sent out an alert that he had harassed his ex-girlfriend and threatened her neighbor with a pocket knife.

The alert was relayed to Willamette Valley Communications Center, the emergency dispatch agency in Salem, which alerted the Polk County Sheriff's Office.

Two Polk County deputies spotted Bolster's car and conducted a "high-risk" traffic stop — handguns and an AR-15 pointed at Bolster, lights shining and their public address system commanding him to get out of the car.

According to witnesses, Bolster kept rummaging through his car for his cell phone. He told deputies he would not "go to jail" and they would have to shoot him.

Deputy Casey Gibson fired one shot at Bolster, who continued to move in his car. He fired another round, striking Bolster in the head.

Bolster was taken to Salem Health hospital where he was pronounced dead. A five-inch folding pocket knife was later found in his car.

When his family rushed to the hospital, they were told by an Oregon State Police trooper that he'd been fatally shot, but didn't say how. Sitting in the hospital, a relative scrolled through a news site and realized Bolster was the man shot by a deputy.

After the shooting, Polk County District Attorney Aaron Felton announced evidence would be presented to a grand jury to determine whether the deputy's use of deadly force was justified.

In late August 2016, his family waited outside the Polk County Courthouse to hear the decision. The grand jury unanimously ruled the shooting was justified.

"There's absolutely no way his death was justified," Bolster's uncle Ray Feskens said following the decision. "They murdered that kid. ... They killed him on a dark highway, alone at night. It's just not right."

His family swore not to forget the injustice of his death. 

In February, Bolster's adoptive mother, Myrtle Bolster, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Polk County, the City of Monmouth and the City of Salem.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court, alleged that the agencies violated Joshua Bolster's civil rights by using excessive deadly force and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

His death may have been avoided if officers, deputies and dispatchers knew he was experiencing a mental health crisis and knew how to help him, according to the complaint.

Family of man killed by deputy shooting has questions
Bolster was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder as a child and continued to struggle with mental illness.

After his relationship with his ex-girlfriend ended in Spring 2016, Bolster's mental health worsened. A safety bulletin was issued by Monmouth Police alerting officers that he had bipolar disorder and was likely not medicated.

After a July 5 confrontation at his ex-girlfriend's apartment, Monmouth officers began searching for Bolster.

According to the complaint, Monmouth officers failed to inform dispatchers that Bolster was mentally ill. Dispatchers did not inform Polk County deputies of Bolster's condition, and the deputies did not request mental health information, even after Gibson observed Bolster's distressed and "abnormal" behavior, according to the complaint.

The stress of high-risk traffic stop aggravated his mental health disabilities, causing him to think self-destructive and obsessive thoughts and lose control of his behavior.

The family's attorney David Park said Bolster died, in part, because Monmouth police did not relay his mental health history to the other agencies. In fact, he added, neither agency had direct policies about what information should be communicated.

"That's the tragedy," Park said.

Family files lawsuit against police

The complaint requested that no more than $3,000,000 be given to Bolster's parents for damages and the loss of their son.

"Our hope was that someone would validate our concerns and that this would not happen again, to someone else's loved one, despite their background," said Perez, Bolster's aunt.

All parties agreed to a settlement and the federal case was dismissed in October. According to the deal, Polk County's insurer agreed to pay $650,000, Monmouth's insurer $35,000 and the City of Salem $15,000 to Bolster's family.

Park said a key part of the settlement was having the agencies agree to change and update their use-of-force policies and protocol for handling mental health crisis.

"It was clear upon the settlement of our case, that Polk County poorly equips their officers to respond to crisis situations," Perez said in a statement. "People must begin to understand that failing to follow commands or committing crimes is not justification to use lethal force. Officer commands are not more important than a human life."

Polk County Sheriff Mark Garton said his office has long maintained the crucial role of deputy training in the area of mental health. In the past two years, the department has increased crisis intervention training, added a mobile crisis team and, more recently, added a section on mental illness to its use-of-force policy.

"Overall, the policy is a continuation of processes already in place in the Sheriff's Office as we move forward to best serve the needs of the community and the citizens of Polk County," Garton said Tuesday.

Police procedure revamped after shooting

Salem police Lt. Dave Okada said as part of the settlement, Willamette Valley Communications Center agreed to require annual training for how to handle calls involving emotionally disturbed people and develop a line of questioning to best capture and communicate vital mental health information.

"Most of these things are already in progress," he said. "They will now make that (training) part of their standard procedure to make sure that happens every year."

The dispatch center is also required to change its alerts from "mental" to "emotionally disturbed person." Okada said this change will happen before the end of 2017.

Monmouth Police Chief Darrell Tallan said the department updated its policy to include guidelines on interacting with, and reporting on, people with mental illness.

Three deputies were placed on administrative leave after the death of Escalona-Baez. Felton identified them as Sgt. Kevin Haynes, Deputy Kelly Lorence and Deputy Mike Stevenson. Lorence was also one of the deputies on the scene when Bolster was shot.

Receiving news of another Polk County officer-involved shooting left Bolster's family reeling.

"No harm has been repaired by Polk County and with this type of work, their community will forever be compromised," Perez said. "I hope that (Escalona-Baez's) family can find peace and their voice be heard."

She added that she hopes — but is doubtful — that investigators and prosecutors will be transparent and honest with the public.

"If this behavior continues to be accepted, nothing will ever change," Perez said.

For questions, comments and news tips, email reporter Whitney Woodworth at wmwoodwort@statesmanjournal.com, call 503-399-6884 or follow on Twitter @wmwoodworth

© 2017 KGW-TV


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