Jury Awards $32 Million in Damages to Family of Suicidal Teen Wrongfully Killed by Benton Police

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A federal jury in Little Rock has awarded $32 million in damages to the family of a suicidal teenager who was killed by the Benton police in 2016. The jury reached its verdict on Monday against the City of Benton and former Police Chief Kirk Lane. The case brings attention to issues of police conduct and accountability, with significant implications for civil rights and law enforcement practice.

The incident occurred on October 17, 2016, when the mother of 17-year-old Keagan Schweikle called 911 to report that he had threatened suicide with a handgun. Three officers from the Benton Police Department, along with a police dog, located Schweikle near his home in the woods by the Saline River. He was found pointing a gun at his own head.

According to the testimony of former BNPD officer Kyle Ellison, who shot and killed Schweikle, Ellison fired his weapon when Schweikle aimed the gun at him after being instructed to drop it. The incident unfolded rapidly, with Schweikle being killed within seconds of the police encountering him.

The lack of bodycam footage to determine the exact details of the confrontation was noted during the trial. Schweikle’s family’s attorney, Mark Geragos, argued that Schweikle may have been attempting to comply with Ellison’s orders when he was wrongfully shot. Geragos cited the testimony of a forensic pathologist who suggested that Schweikle’s arm was still raised, with the gun near his head when he was shot.

Geragos further accused the Benton Police Department of lacking planning and treating Schweikle as a suspect rather than a distressed teenager. He emphasized that there was no evidence in the week leading up to the incident to suggest Schweikle had intended harm to anyone other than himself.

After closing arguments, the jury deliberated and delivered its verdict in favor of Schweikle’s family. The City of Benton was found liable for failing to adequately train its police officers and failing to investigate the officer-involved shooting. The family was awarded $30 million in damages from the city. Former Police Chief Lane was also held responsible and ordered to pay $2 million in damages. However, Ellison was cleared of the plaintiffs’ claims of assault and excessive force.

Defendants and their counsel declined to comment on the jury’s verdict. The case had been previously dismissed by another federal judge, who believed the officer could have reasonably feared for his life. An appellate court later revived the lawsuit, emphasizing that Schweikle was not fleeing or resisting when he was shot.

This verdict is seen as a significant development, indicating that no reasonable officer could perceive Schweikle as an immediate threat of serious physical harm. It brings attention to the need for better police conduct and accountability, acknowledging the substantial loss suffered by Schweikle’s family.