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Lawsuit claims Harford sheriff’s deputies beat man in mental crisis; police report says he didn’t comply with orders

A Baltimore County man is suing the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, the county, the state of Maryland and more than over 30 deputies for allegedly beating and tasering him while he was purportedly suffering from a mental health crisis in 2018.

The lawsuit, filed in Maryland federal court, says sheriff’s deputies violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and used excessive force in arresting Rodney Coster after his mother brought him to the Harford County Detention Center seeking help.

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A police report for the incident, obtained through a Public Information Act by The Aegis, paints a different picture that alleges Coster, 54, wasn’t responding to deputies’ orders and began kicking and punching at them when they asked him to get out of the vehicle he had driven to the jail.

An attorney for Coster said the case highlights inadequate mental health intervention training police receive. Coster was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 21-years-old, according to the lawsuit.

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“Basically this case is an indictment of our broken mental health system,” attorney Jacqueline Kutnik-Bauder said. “The only place Mr. Coster’s mother could turn to for mental health help was the police, and the police are not equipped to handle mental health emergencies … Instead they treated him like a criminal.”

The Harford County Sheriff’s Office has a crisis intervention team, whose personnel are trained to handle mental health-related calls. They were not called to respond to Coster, she said.

Spokesperson for the sheriff’s office Cristie Hopkins said it would be “inappropriate for us to provide any comment on an issue that is currently pending litigation.” The office has not filed a response to the complaint, and no attorneys are listed as representing the office in online court records.

According to the lawsuit, Coster went to visit his mother, Sharon Freedman, for her birthday on Jan. 10, 2018. While visiting, it became clear to Freedman that he was suffering from a mental health crisis, the documents state.

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Freedman convinced her son to drive her to the Harford County Detention Center in Bel Air so she could get him help, according to the lawsuit; in the past, another police agency had helped her get Coster to the hospital.

Coster was delusional and believed Freedman was poisoning his food before showing up at the detention center, according to a motion for a competency evaluation that his defense attorney filed in a 2018 criminal case stemming from the incident.

According to the lawsuit, Freedman and Coster parked in the jail’s front driveway and were approached by two deputies in a police cruiser. Freedman got out of the car and explained to them what was happening — her son was bipolar, not taking his medication and in need of help — while Coster sat in the car, the lawsuit states.

Freedman asked the deputies not to hurt him, the complaint states, and get him mental health treatment.

Two deputies approached Coster in the car and asked for his license. He gave it to them, and they began questioning him. Coster said that “no one could help him” before starting to repeat the phrase “everything is going to be OK,” the documents state.

The deputies then tried to pull Coster out of the car and began repeatedly using a taser on him after four seconds of him passively resisting, the lawsuit alleges.

In the 20 seconds following, according to the documents, seven deputies piled on top of Coster, striking him and kneeling on his head. The lawsuit states that he did not fight back. When Coster was handcuffed, deputies lifted him off the ground by his wrists and carried him to the detention center upside down, the lawsuit states, dislocating his shoulder.

A sheriff’s office report says two deputies responded to the Harford jail for a report of a domestic disturbance and encountered Coster and Freedman. The police report also states that Freedman told the deputies her son was bipolar and off his medication, while Coster sat in the car.

Coster would not answer questions from the deputies and “dropped his left hand out of sight as if reaching for something,” according to the police report. The deputies ordered Coster to show his hands, and when he did not, deputies opened the door of the car and told him to exit the vehicle, according to the report. Coster refused and began to try to kick and punch the deputies, the report alleges.

“At that point, and after numerous warnings that he would be tazed (sic) if he continued to resist,” one of the deputies used his stun-gun, the report states. Other deputies arrived and handcuffed Coster, the report continues.

One officer sustained a “significant injury” to his upper body, the district court charging documents state, and Coster refused precautionary medical treatment.

Kutnik-Bauder, Coster’s attorney, said the incident at the detention center was captured on an outward-facing video camera, though the footage does not always afford a clear view of what is happening. The Aegis requested to see the video, but the attorney did not provide it.

The next day, Coster was taken to University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health in Bel Air, according to the lawsuit.At the hospital, and in pain from his shoulder being reset, he struggled. According to the lawsuit, one of the three sheriff’s deputies accompanying him instructed hospital staff to leave the room and ”began striking [Coster] in the face” while he was restrained.

The lawsuit states Coster was not acting violently and was shackled to the hospital bed by every limb except his dislocated arm.

“By the end of the beating, Mr. Coster’s face and chest were so bloody that his clothes had to be cut off and thrown away,” the lawsuit alleges states.

Charging documents for Coster filed in Harford County District Court say that he yelled and attempted to pull away from medical staff as he was being flipped over on the hospital bed. Deputies tried to “gain control” of him, when he began to “actively resist,” according to the documents.

Coster managed to flip onto his back and kick two deputies, the charging documents state, before hospital staff and the deputies were able to get control over him.

Across the alleged incidents at the detention center and hospital, Coster was charged with three counts of second-degree assault and two counts each of assaulting a department of corrections employee and resisting arrest. He was convicted on one second-degree assault after pleading not criminally responsible — Maryland’s version of an insanity defense. All the other charges were dropped or indefinitely suspended.

Coster was sentenced to time served and three years of probation on the second-degree assault charge, according to documents.

Kutnik-Bauder said Coster hopes that this lawsuit will lead to a change in sheriff’s office policies. The lawsuit is also seeking damages, although it does not specify the amount sought.

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“The main thing he would like to see is the policies and practices changed so that nobody else has to go through something like this,” she said.

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