Former South Bend officer who shot, killed Black man wins judgment on civil rights claims

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

A white former South Bend police officer who fatally shot a Black man wielding a knife during a late-night encounter has been granted judgment on alleged civil rights violations brought by the victim’s family.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana on Wednesday entered summary judgment for former South Bend Sgt. Ryan O’Neill and for the city of South Bend. In June 2019, O’Neill shot Eric Jack Logan in the abdomen, killing him.

“Our country has witnessed sobering cases of law enforcement using deadly force on unarmed citizens,” Judge Damon Leichty wrote in the opening of his 23-page order. “At first blush, the headline here might read similarly — South Bend police sergeant kills Black man — but the circumstances of this summer night cannot be reduced to a mere headline.

“What is the same is the tragic loss of human life,” Leichty wrote. “What is different is the deadly threat this suspect posed to the sergeant when he reasonably used his sidearm.”

On the night of June 16, 2019, O’Neill responded to a 911 call about a suspect breaking into vehicles in the parking lot of the Central High Apartments. O’Neill is the only eyewitness to what happened next, and his bodycam was not activated until after the shooting.

O’Neill arrived at the apartment complex and saw a man leaning into the open door of a vehicle. The man, later identified as Logan, claimed the car was his. However, O’Neill observed a purse stuffed into Logan’s sweatshirt, so the officer asked Logan to explain.

“Mr. Logan stood up. Sergeant O’Neill saw that Mr. Logan was carrying a napkin and a Gerber knife in his right hand, which he raised above his head. Sergeant O’Neill was 5’8” and weighed 225 pounds. Mr. Logan was 6’2” and weighed 269 pounds. Mr. Logan wielded a Gerber knife approximately 8 inches long, including a 3.5-inch blade — a hunting-style knife with a blunted tip and control jimping ridges,” according to the Wednesday order.

“What happened next occurred in a matter of seconds,” the order continues. “Mr. Logan advanced on the sergeant with the knife raised. Sergeant O’Neill backpedaled, drew his gun, and ordered Mr. Logan repeatedly to put the weapon down: ‘Drop the knife. Drop the knife. Drop the knife.’ Mr. Logan forged forward, knife still raised, clearing the length of the Honda. Mr. Logan didn’t say anything. He started making guttural sounds.

“Mr. Logan came within about seven and a half feet — a mere three steps away — when Sergeant O’Neill fired two shots from the hip and Mr. Logan threw his knife at Sergeant O’Neill. Sergeant O’Neill testified that the thrown knife and gunshots occurred ‘almost one on top of the other.’ The knife hit Sergeant O’Neill’s forearm. Sergeant O’Neill’s first shot struck the car door. The second shot hit Mr. Logan’s abdomen.”

O’Neill called for an ambulance and Logan was rushed into emergency surgery, but he did not survive.

Logan’s estate sued O’Neill and the city of South Bend, alleging excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment and racial discrimination in violation of the 14th Amendment. But Leichty ruled for the defendants on both claims.

Leichty’s order focuses largely on why the plaintiff’s evidence was inadmissible and/or irrelevant. For instance, the judge ruled that the lack of bodycam footage was “immaterial” to his analysis, because “its absence doesn’t tend to prove that Sergeant O’Neill used excessive force against Mr. Logan.”

The judge also rejected the estate’s claim that O’Neill made contradictory statements about what happened leading up to the shooting. Specifically, Logan’s family argued that O’Neill admitted he shot Logan after he had thrown the knife, meaning the officer had shot an unarmed man.

“The Estate improperly invites the court to take a split-second event, replay it in slow motion, and parse out the precise moments when the knife and bullets left these men during their confrontation, whether the knife left slightly before a gunshot or whether they literally passed each other in the dark,” Leichty wrote. “… Sergeant O’Neill’s statements aren’t inconsistent in any meaningful way.”

The knife — which had been stolen from a vehicle in the apartment complex — was also a point of contention. The estate claimed O’Neill said Logan was holding the knife in front of him, not above his head, and the plaintiff also pointed to the lack of fingerprint evidence taken from the knife.

But Leichty said the plaintiff “mischaracterized” O’Neill’s testimony, as the question was not where the knife was located, but the direction of the blade — which “has no bearing on whether Sergeant O’Neill acted reasonably in the face of an advancing suspect, knife held high.” And as for the lack of fingerprints, the judge said it “isn’t uncommon” for suspects not to leave behind such evidence on their weapons.

The estate also argued that O’Neill’s previous conviction for ghost employment could allow a jury to discredit him, but the judge disagreed.

“The Estate never articulates what sort of ‘different interpretation’ a jury could reasonably reach merely because in an unrelated matter Sergeant O’Neill was convicted of ghost employment, except its position that the law disallows,” he wrote.

Also at issue was the downward trajectory the bullet took into Logan’s abdomen. The estate argued this meant Logan was on the ground when he was shot — thus posing no threat — but Leichty pointed to testimony that a downward trajectory can also be caused by a suspect moving forward at the time he is shot.

“Quite consistently, Sergeant O’Neill said Mr. Logan was moving forward right before he shot him … ,” the judge wrote. “… That the bullet had a downward trajectory doesn’t discredit Sergeant O’Neill’s recitation of events.”

The estate also sought to present expert testimony on blood stain evidence and police practices, but the court excluded those witnesses as unqualified, unhelpful and/or irrelevant.

Similarly, the court partially granted a motion to strike the affidavit of Lt. David Newton, who said he heard from another officer that O’Neill had previously “made derogatory remarks to a civilian suspect about interracial relationships, and that on other occasion he expressed his discomfort with Muslims.”

“Such remarks are entirely outside the bounds of common decency and the appreciation of difference,” Leichty wrote, “but they provide no insight into any motive or intent to discriminate against Mr. Logan on this night.”

Lastly, the court declined to reach the issue of qualified immunity and granted summary judgment on the Monell claim against the city.

“Some may choose to second-guess Sergeant O’Neill’s split-second decision that night, but faced with an imminent threat to his safety, he acted reasonably under the law based on all information available to him in that moment,” Leichty concluded. “Today’s decision might be different if the facts were different, but this record offers no proof of different facts.”

The case is Estate of Logan v. City of South Bend, et al., 3:19-cv-495.

Logan’s estate is represented by lawyers with the Coffman Law Offices in Chicago and by the McMain Law Offices in Gary. Brian Coffman of Coffman Law told Indiana Lawyer that the plaintiff’s team is “very disappointed” in the ruling. He said the team is reviewing the decision and is considering appellate action in consultation with the Logan family.

O’Neill and the city are represented by Anderson Agostino & Keller PC in South Bend. Indiana Lawyer has reached out to the firm for comment.

Following the shooting, a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate the incident,  and O’Neill resigned from the South Bend police force. The special prosecutor announced in March 2020 that he had determined O’Neill was justified in his use of force against Logan.

Logan’s death also became a sticking point during the 2020 presidential campaign of former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, now the U.S. secretary of transportation.

In the aftermath of the shooting, Buttigieg called on officers to activate their body cameras during all interactions with civilians. Subsequently, the city upgraded its bodycam technology and later adopted a policy allowing for the random inspection of bodycam footage.

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