Protesters displayed signs outside the city hall in Omaha, Nebraska, on August 18, 2020, as the city council approved a $550,000 settlement with the family of Zachary Bear Heels. Bear Heels, who was Lakota and Kiowa, died June 5, 2017, following an encounter with four police officers. Photo courtesy of Mahmud Fitil

'No amount of money is ever going to bring him back': City settles lawsuit for death of Native man beaten by police officers

OMAHA, Nebraska -- A three-year legal effort to gain restitution for the death of a 29-year-old Lakota and Kiowa man who died in June 2017 after an encounter with four police officers ended last week when the city council here voted to approve a $550,000 settlement with the man’s family.

The council’s 7-0 vote on August 18 effectively ended one phase of the effort to gain justice for Zachary Bear Heels, who died after being Tased 12 times and punched 13 times in the head by police officers before dying.

But those involved in the settlement, including Bear Heels’ family and attorney, said they aren’t happy with the outcome of the family’s lawsuit against the City of Omaha.

“My life is just, it’s still destroyed because I got to live with this now,” said Renita Chalepah, Bear Heels’ mother. “I’m not happy with the settlement. No amount of money is ever going to bring him back.”

Activist Mahmud Fitil wore a t-shirt in honor of Zachary Bear Heels to an Omaha City Council meeting on August 18, 2020. Bear Heels, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe who also was Kiowa, died June 5, 2017, after an encounter with four police officers who shocked him 12 times with a Taser and punched him 13 times in the head. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Mitchell Chalepah, Bear Heels’ younger brother, said he believed his mother was coerced into accepting the settlement, which will only provide $150,000 to his mother. His mother’s attorney will get $150,000, and Bear Heels’ father will get $150,000.

Mitchell Chalepah said Bear Heels’ father had little to do with raising Bear Heels or caring for him as he dealt with the symptoms of mental illness. Bear Heels suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

“I feel like my mom was forced into taking this settlement,” he said. “I’m not happy with it.”

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Frank LaMere and Renita Chalepah, Mother of Zachary Bear Heels [From 2018]

But Renita Chalepah’s attorney, Garvin Isaacs of Oklahoma City, said his client wanted to accept the settlement, despite his recommendation that she force the City of Omaha to defend itself in the courtroom.

“At least the family got what they wanted, but I think there’s a lot more that would’ve been awarded if we had gone to trial,” Isaacs said.

He said he had hoped to tell Bear Heels’ story to a jury and hold accountable the officers and others who failed him.

“What happened to them was criminal misconduct by bullies with badges,” Isaacs said. “Nobody’s above the law, not even police officers.”

"Loving Son, Brother, Grandson, Nephew, Uncle" -- Zachary Bear Heels was laid to rest in Apache, Oklahoma, following his death in Omaha, Nebraska, in June 2017. His headstone is seen in this courtesy photo.

On June 5, 2017, Bear Heels was traveling from the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota back to his home in Oklahoma City when he was kicked off the bus in Omaha for acting erratically. His relatives have said he wasn’t taking his medication.

Officers Scotty Payne, Ryan McClarty, Jennifer Strudl and Makyla Mead were called to the Bucky’s Convenience Store at 60th and Center streets. When they arrived, the officers attempted to put Bear Heels in a police cruiser, but he resisted and a struggled ensued.

The officers managed to get Bear Heels’ hands cuffed behind his back and put him on the ground, sitting with his back against the rear passenger tire of the cruiser. But then Payne began shocking the handcuffed Bear Heels, who was demonstrating no threat to the officers, with his Taser gun.

At that point, Bear Heels managed to pull a wrist out of one of the cuffs, and McClarty began punching him in the head and face and pulling on his hair. Eventually, other officers arrived on the scene, and the officers managed to zip-tie Bear Heels’ hands behind his back and place him face-down on the pavement.

Two officers took turns putting their full weight on Bear Heels’ back, and when the officers turned him over to put him on a gurney, Bear Heels was dead.

Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer fired McClarty, Payne, Strudl and Mead. A coroner’s physician who conducted an autopsy on Bear Heels later concluded his death was attributable to “excited delirium” and not necessarily related to his injuries or shocks.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine filed assault charges against Payne and McClarty, but an Omaha jury acquitted Payne in December 2018. A few months later, Kleine dropped the assault charge against McClarty as well.

Then in April, an arbitration panel formed to decide whether the four officers should get their jobs back ruled that McClarty, Strudl and Mead should be rehired while Payne should not.

A protester displays a sign outside the Omaha City Hall on August 18, 2020, during a demonstration showing support for a proposal to shift $2 million out of the city's police department and into job training and health programs. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

On Tuesday, several Omaha citizens and activists spoke to the Omaha City Council and criticized the city for failing to protect Bear Heels and for offering his family such a small amount of money as restitution.

Matthew Lemar of Omaha criticized the arbitration process that allowed three of the four officers to get their jobs back.

“While I hope that this settlement can bring some solace and comfort to Miss Chalepah, the fact that three of the four officers who were complicit in the death of Zachary remain on the police force is unconscionable,” he said. “In no other profession could you either actively participate in or be complicit in the death of a mentally handicapped man and still have a job.”

He called on the city to reform the arbitration process to ensure officers who are fired for brutalizing innocent citizens don’t get their jobs back.

Activist Mahmud Fitil stands outside city hall in Omaha, Nebraska, on August 18, 2020, following a city council meeting in which the council approved a $550,000 settlement with the family of Zachary Bear Heels. Bear Heels died June 5, 2017, after an encounter with four Omaha police officers. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Sarah Brumfield of Omaha said Omaha citizens will now bear the brunt of the Bear Heels settlement, including the cost of paying the three rehired officers’ salaries. And Brumfield quoted Bear Heels’ sister, Adrianne Chalepah: “Zack wasn’t just a police brutality victim. He was an uncle, son, friend, classmate, nephew and grandson. They ripped our family in half and left us in pieces.”

Omaha activist Mahmud Fitil urged the city to reallocate some police funds and put it toward mental health care. With the police budget taking up 40 percent of the city’s budget, little money remains for other community needs, he said.

“Perhaps cops shouldn’t be responding to mental health crisis calls, but who else would?” Fitil said. “All we have, all we have for resources are the police because they take over 40 percent, and you want to give them more?”

Recently, Omaha City Councilman Chris Jerram proposed shifting $2 million from the police department’s budget and redirecting those funds to job training and health programs. Responding to the proposal, Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said he would have to cut four police officers if his budget were reduced by $2 million.

Protesters stand outside the city hall in Omaha, Nebraska, on August 18, 2020, during a demonstration showing support for a proposal to shift $2 million out of the city's police department and into job training and health programs. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

This week, Fitil offered the City Council a suggested list of officers that Schmaderer should fire if forced to cut his staff: Officer Dave Staskiewicz, who served as the expert witness for Payne’s defense and trains OPD officers on the use of Tasers, and Officers McClarty, Strudl and Mead.

“Now is the chance for Chief Todd Schmaderer to finally clean house due to budget concerns and reallocating those funds where they’re needed and getting rid of problematic officers,” Fitil said.

“We ask for everyone to remember Zachary Bear Heels.”

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