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N.M. officer sues PD over mental hospital stay

The officer, who suffers from bipolar disorder, can't go back to patrol because federal law prohibits him from possessing a firearm because he was committed to a mental institution

By Steve Terrell
The Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE, N.M. — Brian Schamber is a Los Alamos police officer who suffers from bipolar disorder. Last December, his commanders forced him to go to the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas, N.M., where he involuntarily stayed for 10 days before he was released and cleared for active duty as a police officer by a police-contracted psychiatrist.

In the seven months since his release, Schamber has returned to work, though he has been working from home, doing work that doesn't require him to carry a gun. Today, both Schamber and the Los Alamos Police Department agree that Schamber is fit to be back on regular duty — gun and all.

"He was cleared," Jamie Sullivan, a lawyer representing Los Alamos County, said Wednesday. "We think he is a very good law enforcement officer."

But Schamber's lawyer, John Day, said his client can't go back to patrol duty because of a federal law that prohibits him from possessing a firearm because he was committed to a mental institution. "It's ironic that at first they were anxious to get him off of the street, and now they're anxious to get him back on the street," Day said.

Sullivan argues that Schamber never was "committed" formally to a mental facility because his stay in Las Vegas was only an evaluation.

The matter now is in federal court. Los Alamos County filed an action in May asking a federal judge to rule that there's no federal prohibition against Schamber working as a police officer.

Schamber this week filed a countersuit asking for compensatory damages, including loss of earnings, loss of benefits, loss of promotional opportunities, loss of career and lost earning capacity. He also is asking for punitive damages. There is no specific dollar amount listed in the countersuit.

According to court documents, this is what happened:

Schamber, who was hired by the Los Alamos police in 2010, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in June 2012. Both sides in the case agree that bipolar disorder does not disqualify someone from being a certified officer in New Mexico. He also was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

For the next several weeks, Schamber was prescribed various medications to treat his condition.

In early October he was cleared to return to full duty.

In November, police Chief Wayne Torpy suffered a stroke and took extended medical leave (he retired earlier this year). Captain Randy Foster became acting chief.

Schamber claims that Foster and acting Deputy Chief Scott Mills began harassing and intimidating him.

On Dec. 21, Torpy and Mills learned that Schamber had an appointment with Espanola psychiatrist Gregory Baca. According to the county's court action, at that appointment Schamber asked Baca "why it seemed like I was evil and always had thoughts of harming other people."

Later that day, Schamber was on patrol with another officer. According to the county's suit, Schamber, who was driving, turned the steering wheel to the right toward the man and said "right in the kneecaps, that would be funny."

Schamber, the suit said, "also told his partner that he was planning on leaving his gun at home the following week because he was starting his medication again and that the last time he started medications he had had thoughts that he wanted to hide in the bushes on Longview Drive and hit people in the head with a metal bat."

"Apparently cops have a dark sense of humor," Day told The New Mexican on Wednesday.

Sometime that day, Baca sent an email to Foster saying Schamber should not have a gun. Foster later told Schamber t0 surrender his gun and ordered him to go to the Los Alamos Medical Center. He was admitted to the hospital but was determined to be no threat to himself or others. However, after speaking to Foster and Baca, the hospital reversed that evaluation.

The next day, Schamber was in his car with his wife. He was pulled over by a fellow Los Alamos officer. "During the stop, Mr. Schamber was forcibly removed from his car, handcuffed, arrested, placed in a patrol car and involuntarily taken back to the Los Alamos Medical Center," the countersuit says.

At the hospital he was "forcibly restrained against his will, sedated against his will, administered medications against his will, and stripped of his clothes," the countersuit says. A doctor there signed a "Physician's Certificate for Involuntary Commitment." He was taken by ambulance to the state hospital in Las Vegas, where he stayed for 10 days.

During his stay, Schamber was "repeatedly and heavily sedated against his will," the countersuit says. For the first three days he was so heavily medicated his judgment was impaired.

Dr. Susan Cave, who examined Schamber for the Los Alamos Police Department, cleared him to go back to regular duty. On Feb. 14, Cave stated that "[i]t appears there were a lot of misstatements and reports to medical staff both in Los Alamos and [the state hospital] that later did not bear out to be correct. There is no evidence that [Schamber] was psychotic in December 2012 or since."

Schamber claims he was threatened by Foster and Mills, and that his home had been searched by police while he was in Las Vegas. Foster in January tried to get Schamber decertified by the state Law Enforcement Academy Board. That action still is pending, Day said.

Foster was fired in June after an internal investigation over what had happened to Schamber, the countersuit says.

Copyright 2013 The Santa Fe New Mexican

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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