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Originally published June 1, 2012 at 2:44 PM | Page modified June 1, 2012 at 8:01 PM

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$1M verdict against Bainbridge in fatal shooting of mentally ill man

A federal jury faulted the city of Bainbridge Island for its police training but cleared Officer Jeff Benkert, who fired the shots that killed Doug Ostling, a 43-year-old man who was mentally ill.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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A federal jury awarded $1 million Friday to the family of a mentally ill man who was killed by a Bainbridge Island police officer, ending a case that has roiled the island for nearly two years.

After three days of deliberation, the eight-member jury faulted Bainbridge and its police chief for inadequate police training in dealing with the mentally ill.

But the jury cleared Officer Jeff Benkert, who fired the fatal shots, against claims he used excessive force and failed to aid Doug Ostling as he slowly bled to death Oct. 26, 2010.

The split verdict pleased the Ostling family, which filed suit after Kitsap County prosecutors did not file criminal charges against Benkert. They claimed Benkert and his partner, David Portrey, unnecessarily provoked a confrontation with Ostling, 43, and then withheld first aid for 77 minutes.

"The family is very happy," said the family's attorney, Nate Roberts. "The message they wanted to send to this Police Department and all others is that they need to train their officers on dealing with the mentally ill. This verdict accomplishes that."

The trial stemmed from a bizarre 911 call placed by Ostling, who lived in an apartment above his parents' garage.

When the two officers made contact with Ostling that night, Ostling was in the doorway of his apartment, holding a double-bladed ax. Benkert fired through Ostling's door after Ostling refused repeated commands to drop the ax.

Ostling's parents, Bill and Joyce Ostling, sued Benkert, Bainbridge Island Police Chief Jon Fehlman and the city of Bainbridge Island, alleging the confrontation and the city's training policies amounted to civil-rights violations.

The jury found in favor of their claim that Benkert and Portrey were poorly trained to deal with the mentally ill. In closing statements, Roberts noted both officers testified they were unfamiliar with the department's guidelines, which instruct police to try to calm, rather than escalate, incidents involving mentally ill people.

The city's lawyers contended Ostling was coming at the officers with the ax in a striking position, and they acted appropriately in the face of a potentially lethal threat.

Fehlman was a target for the family's attorneys during the trial because of an inaccurate media briefing he gave after the shooting, which exaggerated Ostling's actions.

"Rather than tell the truth about what happened that night, they decided to fabricate a story that made them into heroes and Doug Ostling into an ax-wielding maniac," Roberts said during closing arguments earlier this week.

In a statement, the city acknowledged the jury's finding regarding training, and apologized to the Ostling family.

"The city again wishes to extend our sympathies to the Ostling family and to state we are terribly sorry for the loss of Douglas Ostling," Interim City Manager Morgan Smith said in the statement.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com.

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