The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear arguments in a dispute involving Baltimore County police over the duties of officers and their departments to prevent prisoners from committing suicide in custody.
The court, without comment, yesterday left intact a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last year that two county police officers, Donald Gaigalas and Ronald Tucker, violated the civil rights of James E. Buffington, 24, of Catonsville, who hanged himself in the Wilkens police lockup March 19, 1987.
William F. Gately, who represented Buffington's family, said he was "disappointed" that the Supreme Court would not hear arguments on the liability of the department and Police Chief Cornelius J. Behan. They were struck from a federal jury's verdict by a 4th Circuit panel on appeal.
"On balance," Gately said, "we view the case as a tremendous victory. The duty of police to protect suicidal detainees is the constitutional standard now. It's clear to us that the county police, as a direct result of this case, have transformed the way they handle all detainees."
Daniel W. Whitney, Gately's co-counsel, said the Supreme Court's action gave the plaintiffs, David and Barbara Buffington, "a significant victory."
Whitney said that since the jury's verdict two years ago the county has appropriated money to outfit holding cells with video cameras so desk officers can constantly watch detainees, and has made it standard procedure to keep potentially suicidal prisoners handcuffed to railings near the booking desks in police stations.
The Buffingtons, who sat through one trial that ended with a jury deadlock before the jury's award in a second trial, said they sued only to change the way county police handled suicidal prisoners so other families would not have to suffer the same loss they did.
The second trial jury awarded them $185,000 in compensatory damages, which they said they would donate to a Catonsville youth home.
Their civil suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, stemmed from their son's suicide in the lockup after he was arrested at the request of his brother. James Buffington had left home with several rifles and pistols. He had a history of emotional and alcohol problems, and had left a suicide note, his brother told police.
Police who arrested James Buffington handcuffed him to a railing near the booking desk while they sought to arrange emergency psychiatric treatment for him. He told the officers he had intended to shoot himself but did not know which gun to use.