San Diego County will pay $8.1 million to the family of Nicholas Bils, an unarmed man who slipped out of a patrol car outside the downtown central jail and was fatally shot in the back by a sheriff’s deputy in May 2020.
The settlement will be divided among Kathleen Bils, the mother of Nicholas Bils, and three brothers, said Eugene Iredale, the lawyer for the family. Kathleen Bils will receive $5.1 million and the three brothers $1 million each.
The death of 36-year-old Bils led the District Attorney‘s Office to charge the deputy, Aaron Russell, with murder under a recent state law that changed the terms under which law enforcement could legitimately use force. It was the first case in the state brought under the revised law.
Russell, who was assigned to the jails at the time, eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced in February to a year in jail and placed on probation for three years.
Jail records show he is set to be released Tuesday.
Kathleen Bils filed a lawsuit in December 2020 against the county, Russell and then-Sheriff Bill Gore, for civil rights violations, excessive force and wrongful death. The docket shows that both sides reached an agreement to settle the case on June 20.
The county communications office did not respond to a request for comment on the settlement Thursday afternoon.
The incident began on May 20, 2021, when Bils, who suffered from schizophrenia, was arrested by two State Park rangers at Old Town State Park, where he had gone to play with his dog. He was pitching golf balls for the dog to chase when the rangers arrested him because the dog was off leash, and golfing was banned in the park. They also said he brandished a golf club at them, according to the lawsuit.
He was taken to the downtown jail on Front Street at B Street, and as the car approached the jail he was somehow able to slip out of his handcuffs, reach outside the window and open the door.
When the car stopped he jumped out and ran away. At that time Russell and another deputy were on their way to work and saw Bils fleeing north on Front Street.
Russell, who at that time had been a deputy for 18 months and worked exclusively in the jail, began to pursue.
He then drew his weapon and, shifting the lunch he was carrying from one hand to the other, opened fire. Bils was hit four times in the back and side.
The amount the county has agreed to pay appears to be the largest settlement of its kind in recent years. In 2019 jurors in San Diego Superior Court awarded David Collins $12.6 million after he suffered serious brain damage after falling in the Vista jail. The trial judge later reduced the award to $6.4 million and, with interest, the county ultimately paid out close to $7 million after unsuccessful appeals. That was a case based on negligence, not excessive force.
Earlier this year a federal jury handed down a whopping $85 million award against the county for excessive force in the 2015 death of Lucky Phounsy. He died after a struggle with nearly a dozen deputies at a family home in Lakeside during which he was struck, tased and hogtied in maximum restraints.
However, that record-setting amount — the largest ever against the county and the largest civil rights verdict for an in-custody death nationally — appears about to be set aside by the judge in the case, who indicated at a hearing in early June that she was leaning toward ordering a new trial in the case.
Iredale said the county should take several lessons from the Bils case. He said the policy requiring deputies who work exclusively in the jails to carry firearms to work and back home was “highly questionable.” Those deputies can’t carry the weapon inside the jail, and while they receive firearms training, Iredale said it is different than the training patrol deputies receive.
He also said that the case highlighted the principle based on a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court case that said police can only use deadly force on someone who is fleeing if there is a serious threat of injury or death. The high court left it up to states to adopt that standard, however, and California did not until the new use-of-force standard went into effect in 2020.
“Nicholas Bils was clearly unarmed, and not a threat to anyone,” Iredale said. “He was running away — and was shot in the back and the side.”
Last, he said the case was part of a larger pattern of poor training and supervision in the department , including years of deaths in county jails.