PHOENIX – The family of a New York woman who died in police custody at the Phoenix airport in September filed an $8 million claim against the city Wednesday, the first step in filing a wrongful death suit.
The claim was immediately rejected by the city in a letter to lawyers for the family of Carol Anne Gotbaum, who died Sept. 28 in a police holding cell at Sky Harbor International Airport after being arrested for disorderly conduct. She was on her way by herself from New York to enter an alcohol treatment center in Tucson.
The claim, the legally required precursor to a lawsuit, seeks the money for Gotbaum's husband, Noah, her three children and her estate. Gotbaum's husband is the son of New York City Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum.
"On that day, members of the Phoenix Police Department used excessive and unreasonable force on Carol, as if she was a dangerous criminal, rather than as the sick, intoxicated, and vulnerable person she was," the claim states.
An autopsy report released by the Maricopa County medical examiner's office concluded that Gotbaum accidentally hanged herself on her shackles while in the holding cell. The report said intoxication from alcohol and prescription drugs were contributing factors.
Gotbaum family attorney Michael Manning wrote in the claim that police erred by putting her alone and shackled in a holding room.
"In the process, they ignored the warning signs that their own policies, procedures and training materials told them could result in Carol's death," Manning wrote.
Police have contended that Gotbaum's death was accidental and that officers who took her into custody did nothing wrong.
Wednesday's letter from the city's legal department to Manning said the claim that police should have responded differently was wrong.
"The thrust of the Gotbaum family claim is that the City of Phoenix police officers should have been more supportive than Carol's own husband, more knowledgeable than her own family, and should somehow have known that she suffered from a private condition that she deliberately hid from the public," said the letter signed by attorney Stephen Craig.
"But the Gotbaum family has publicly admitted, not only that Carol hid her medical and mental condition, but that the officers responded to Carol exactly the way her husband knew they would respond because they did not have critical information known only to the Gotbaum family," the letter continued.
The city letter included transcripts of phone calls Noah Gotbaum made to the airport the afternoon of his wife's death, telling officials he was concerned about her whereabouts because she was depressed and suicidal.
The Phoenix Police Department will probably refuse settling in any way, said Sgt. Andy Hill, a spokesman for the agency.
"The promise that was made to the police officers involved by the city legal unit when this all began was if those actions by those officers were justified and were professional, that they would go to the furthest extent possible to protect those officers," Hill said. "That is what's happening today."