Court Rules Against Wife Of Officer Who Committed Suicide

Dennis Walsh joined the Nassau County, New York Police Department in 1990. In 2006, after rising through the ranks to the position of Detective Lieutenant, Walsh began to exhibit signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. On October 19, 2006, Walsh committed suicide.

Walsh’s widow brought a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Department, alleging that the failure of the Department to provide adequate training in suicide prevention for officers afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder violated Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act. A federal court disagreed, and dismissed the lawsuit.

The heart of the lawsuit was the allegation that the County had shown “deliberate indifference to Walsh’s constitutional rights.” To sustain such a claim, the Court observed, a plaintiff would have to show (1) that a municipal policy maker knows to a moral certainty that his employees will confront a given situation; (2) that the situation either presents the employee with the difficult choice of the sort that training or supervision will make less difficult or that there is a history of employees mishandling the situation; and (3) that the wrong choice by the municipal employees frequently caused a deprivation of citizens’ constitutional rights.

The Court found that the claim lodged by Walsh’s widow failed to meet these standards. The Court held that “she does not clearly articulate which of Walsh’s constitutional rights that defendants violated in failing to train officers in suicide risk, assessment and prevention. Instead, she simply makes vague reference to the Fourteenth Amendment. Her argument appears to be that the allegedly inadequate training was itself a violation of Walsh’s constitutional rights. However, the Municipality’s failure to train its employees, in and of itself, is not a violation of Section 1983 unless the inadequate training leads to or causes an independent constitutional violation. Even assuming that Walsh’s widow could articulate an independent violation of Walsh’s constitutional rights, she has not alleged a viable deliberate indifference claim.

“She concedes that Walsh did receive some training in suicide risk assessment and prevention during his time in the Academy. Where, as here, the Municipality has a training program in place, a plaintiff has the added burden to identify a deficiency in the program and establish that the deficiency is closely related to the ultimate injury such that it actually causes the constitutional deprivation. Walsh’s widow does not point to a specific deficiency in the Department suicide risk assessment and prevention training but suggests, without elaboration, that it was not sufficiently comprehensive. But even if the deficiency of the Department’s training program had been alleged with the requisite specificity, she fails to articulate a causal relationship between Walsh’s minimum training and the deprivation of his constitutional rights.”

Displaying a breathtakingly poor choice of words given the nature of the lawsuit, the Court concluded: “There are several other fatal problems with her claim. For example, it is implausible to allege that the County knew to a moral certainty that police officers would confront suicidal feelings. Although the plaintiff highlights various studies showing high rates of suicide among police officers, significantly, there is no allegation that the defendants were aware that Walsh and other department officers were affected by thoughts of suicide.”

Robischung-Walsh v. Nassau County Police Dept., 2010 WL 1205668 (E.D. N.Y. 2010).

This article appears in the June 2010 issue