A California jury has awarded $9 million to the family of a woman fatally shot seven times by police in Long Beach in 2017 in what the family’s attorneys say is the largest such award in city history.
The federal jury reached the verdict in favor of 37-year-old Sinuon Pream’s parents and her four children on Friday. Pream was shot by Long Beach Officers Bradley Muhlenkamp and Elieser Domingo on Jan. 15, 2017, after she refused repeated orders to drop a knife.
At the time, Long Beach police said Pream had tried to cut and stab several civilians with the knife, swung it at officers and advanced on them. They said both Muhlenkamp and Domingo used their stun guns on Pream to no effect before they shot her.
Pream’s family said she suffered from mental illness and that officers should have done more to de-escalate the situation.
“She needed help, not bullets,” said Rodney Diggs, one of the Pream family’s attorneys. “The family is pretty torn up because their mother and their daughter suffered from a sickness that wasn’t her fault.”
Diggs also pointed to an autopsy report that showed that three of Pream’s bullet wounds were to her back.
Howard Russell, the lead attorney for Long Beach, said in a statement that he’s reviewing the city’s options, which include appealing the jury’s verdict.
The city had argued that the officers’ use of force was reasonable under the circumstances.
“There is no evidence that either officer acted with an improper motive or with any other purpose than the legitimate law enforcement objective of taking Pream into custody while defending themselves and the public,” according to a court document filed by the city’s attorneys.
Muhlenkamp, who fired the majority of shots that hit Pream, said in a court deposition that he shot Pream because he “felt an immediate threat to my life.”
“She took a lunge towards me,” he said. “I’m telling her to drop the knife and she looks at me, like, dead in the eyes, lunges at me … fully extended, with her hand angled down so that the knife is completely at me, not up at all, just right at my chest.”
Under questioning by Diggs, Muhlenkamp said he stopped firing on Pream only when she fell to the ground because she couldn’t stab him from that position.
Jurors rejected the city’s and the officers’ arguments, finding that the shooting “shocked the conscience.”
“We hope that this verdict will save lives and change the way that the officers in the Long Beach Police Department and other police departments respond to people that are suffering from mental illnesses,” attorney Brian Dunn, who also represents Pream’s family, said in a statement.
An investigation by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office concluded with no charges against Muhlenkamp and Domingo, who are both still on the force. The officers “were placed in reasonable fear of death or great bodily injury by Pream’s actions and acted lawfully in self-defense and defense of others when they used deadly force against her,” prosecutors said in a March 7 memorandum to Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna.
The city said in a statement that the verdict was unexpected, citing the district attorney’s conclusion and facts of the case. Officials are considering appealing, the statement said.
“Regardless of any verdict, officer-involved shootings leave a traumatic and lasting impact on everyone involved — the family, the officers, and the community,” the statement said. “For that reason, every critical incident goes through multiple reviews — both internal and external — to evaluate legal, policy, tactical, and equipment considerations. The goal of these reviews is to thoroughly evaluate the incident, and ensure we are continually using best practices while policing our community.”
Pream’s family said in a statement that they were grateful to the jury “for believing our story and understanding our family’s perspective.”
“Receiving this verdict makes us feel like we have finally received justice,” her family said. “We hope Sinuon’s soul can finally rest in peace.”