(Photo: Santa Cruz County Sheriff Sgt. Chris Clark addresses the media in April regarding the shooting death of Luke Smith.)
WATSONVILLE — The family of a 15-year-old who was shot to death in Watsonville last year has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office and the County of Santa Cruz.
The lawsuit, filed Aug. 31 in United States District Court in San Jose, also names Sheriff Jim Hart, deputy Chris Vigil, the City of Capitola and its police department and officer Pedro Zamora.
While the lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages, financial gain is not the purpose behind the lawsuit, Santa Rosa Attorney Charles Applegate said.
“We want the police to stop killing mentally ill children,” he said. “The family brought this lawsuit because they don’t want this to happen again.”
In the court document, Applegate referred to Luke Smith as a boy with a history of mental health issues who at the time of the shooting was experiencing an “acute mental health emergency.”
Santa Cruz County spokesman Jason Hoppin declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. Capitola City Manager Jamie Goldstein did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Chris Clark said that the agency has been “open and transparent” throughout the event and investigation, but also declined to comment on the case.
Police say Luke and a friend ingested LSD sometime in the night of Nov. 18, 2016, and that Luke got into an argument with his father when he returned early the next morning to his Pioneer Road home.
According to police, Luke stabbed his father and uncle with a four-inch pocketknife and then fled.
Sheriff’s deputies and officers from Watsonville and Capitola police departments confronted him a short time later as he walked on Pioneer Road.
According to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department, Luke refused to drop the knife after law enforcement officials tried to negotiate with him.
They then shot Luke with several less-than-lethal 40mm sponge rounds, shocked him with Tasers and sent an attack dog to bite him.
Vigil then shot Luke with an AR-15 assault rifle.
In police video of the incident, the officers can be seen handcuffing Luke after the shooting, who, “remained alive, wounded and in severe pain writhing helpless on the ground,” Applegate wrote in the court document.
After he was shot, Luke was again attacked by the police dog, and shot with more less-than-lethal rounds and Tasers, Applegate wrote.
“They made things worse, and that’s not their job,” he said. “They didn’t have a better idea of what do you do when someone is in a mental health crisis.”
Applegate alleges that the deputies and police officers that responded lacked sufficient training to deal with cases such as Luke’s.
“The theory behind a lawsuit like this is that if what you’re doing is too expensive, you change,” he said.
Santa Cruz County District Attorney Jeff Rosell announced in an April press conference that Vigil would not face criminal charges for the shooting, saying the deputies feared for their lives when they confronted Luke.
In a press conference soon after the shooting, Sheriff Jim Hart called Luke a “serious threat” to the officials at the scene.
Applegate questioned that assertion, saying all the officials at the scene were around 20 feet away from Luke.
“I don’t think anyone can watch that video and believe that shooting was justified,” he said. “Our belief is that the police exacerbated the situation. None of the protocols they had at the time were sufficient to avoid that. They made things worse, and that’s not their job.”