Man sues San Jose police for blinding him with rubber bullet as he threatened suicide

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SAN JOSE (BCN) — A South Bay man is suing San Jose police for blinding him in one eye by shooting him with rubber bullets while he was threatening to kill himself last year.

Benjamin Cooper wasn’t threatening to harm anyone but himself when the officers shot him outside the Shop-N-Go store at 29 S. Jackson Ave. on Dec. 15.

He was hit in the left leg, the chest and his right eye, costing him his vision in that eye, according to the lawsuit.

The suit was filed on Oct. 28. It does not identify the officers who shot Cooper, but names the city of San Jose, San Jose police and former police Chief Larry Esquivel as defendants.

Asked for more information earlier this month, San Jose police spokesman Sgt. Enrique Garcia said he was unable to find any record of an incident on that date involving Cooper and suggested that another agency might be involved.

Garcia referred further questions to City Attorney Richard Doyle, who declined to comment.

However, in response to a California Public Records Act request, San Jose police released a report that confirmed Cooper was hit with less-lethal projectiles after police responded for a welfare check at the
store at 5:34 p.m. on Dec. 15.

According to the report by Officer William Doane, Cooper was holding a knife to his neck when officers arrived.

“He was threatening to harm himself. The male was uncooperative with police and refused to follow verbal commands from officers all while still holding the knife to his neck,” Doane wrote.

“The suspect was taken into custody after the use of less lethal projectiles,” Doane wrote.

According to the suit, police were initially called by a clerk at the Shop-N-Go store because a person was armed with a knife and threatening suicide. San Jose police arrived and found Cooper inside with the clerk.

The clerk came outside with the officers and Cooper, still armed with the knife, came outside a short time later. Cooper paced back and forth outside the store as more police officers arrived, according to the suit.

Cooper held the knife to his neck and threatened to harm himself but did not make any threats to the officers or anyone else. The officers drew their weapons and shouted commands at Cooper, including “drop the
knife,” according to the suit.

After he was shot with rubber bullets, Cooper was taken to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center for treatment. He was placed on a mental health evaluation hold and then arrested for resisting or delaying arrest, according to the police report.

Cooper’s attorney Sam Lasser said Thursday that Cooper suffered a fractured orbital and, despite emergency surgery, is permanently blind in his right eye. He was left disfigured and can no longer open that eye, Lasser said.

“It was a cry for help, he was in a crisis, and the police ended up completely mishandling it,” Lasser said. “They reacted inappropriately and made his life a lot worse.”

His permanent injuries have made his existing mental health issues worse, including his depression, anxiety and panic attacks, according to Lasser.

Cooper is seeking unspecified damages for excessive force, assault, battery and negligence, among other allegations. His attorneys argue that in shooting Cooper, the officers did not comply with best practices for
dealing with a suicidal individual or attempt to de-escalate the situation.

The incident happened just a few days before a jury awarded $11 million in a civil trial to 38-year-old Hung Lam, who was shot in the back by San Jose police and paralyzed while threatening to kill himself in 2014.

According to Lam’s attorney John Burris, Lam had only been threatening to hurt himself while holding a knife to his abdomen with one hand.

Police argued that he advanced toward Officer Dondi West before she shot him.

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