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A woman accuses four police officers of becoming bystanders the day her son struggled to stay above water in the Tennessee River and drowned on July 25, 2022.
Mika Wheeler Clabo, a 30-year-old outdoor enthusiast and skilled arborist, was a recovering and hardworking man who recently got his driver’s license and purchased a new car before his death, according to his mother and her attorney.
However, in the days leading up to his drowning, he “lost everything” he had worked for the previous two years, including his belongings, his license, his self-esteem and “possibly worst of all, his sobriety,” according to a lawsuit filed in federal court on July 25, the anniversary of his death.
On the morning of July 25, 2022, dozens of people called 911 about Clabo “acting erratically” and seemingly “scared” as if he “was trying to get away from something” before he ran toward the Tennessee River near Calhoun’s On The River in Knoxville, a waterfront barbecue restaurant, according to the lawsuit.
Clabo fell into the river around 10:14 a.m. and struggled for about 15 minutes before disappearing, a complaint says. His body was recovered from the river by divers around 12:40 p.m.
During Clabo’s struggle, four responding Knoxville police officers are accused of standing by on the riverbank, making no effort to help him and discouraging witnesses — Calhoun’s employees and patrons — from getting involved as they waited for the arrival of a rescue boat, according to the complaint.
“The officers devolved into mere bystanders, standing a few feet above Mika on the riverbank, dock, or deck, watching him struggle …and occasionally urging him on, to ‘swim’ or ‘get out,’” the complaint says.
Clabo’s mother, Kimberly Williams-Clabo, accuses the four officers of negligence and depriving her son of his rights — in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment — by not making an effort to save him despite knowing his life was at risk.
She’s filed her lawsuit against the City of Knoxville, Knoxville Chief of Police Paul Noel, the four officers and other defendants not identified in the complaint.
Williams-Clabo seeks $4 million in damages and demands a 12-person jury trial, the complaint shows.
The city declined a request for comment, as it doesn’t comment on pending litigation, Kristin Farley, Knoxville’s director of communications, told McClatchy News on July 27.
The Knoxville Police department is aware of the lawsuit but declined to comment, as it also doesn’t comment on pending litigation, Scott Erland, the department’s communications manager, told McClatchy News on July 27.
Three of the officers named in the complaint continue to work for the police department, Erland confirmed. A fourth officer left the department for another job position.
An internal investigation didn’t take place over their response to the drowning, he said.
“Mika deserved better that day,” attorney Lance K. Baker, who represents Williams-Clabo, told McClatchy News in a statement on July 27. “He deserved officers that operated like first responders and what he received were officers that operated like bystanders.”
The drowning incident
The morning of July 25, 2022, Knoxville police issued an alert on Twitter about officers, the Knoxville Fire Department and the city’s rescue squad searching for a person who went into the river near Calhoun’s and didn’t resurface.
They wrote they had received several 911 calls before 10 a.m. about him “acting erratically” before “he went into the river shortly after officers arrived.”
According to the lawsuit, after Clabo entered the river, he became stuck as his feet were ensnared in vines from nearby bushes, the complaint says.
One officer who arrived at the scene spoke to another individual over his radio, saying Clabo was “attempting to get back to shore but I cannot get to him,” according to the complaint, which cites police body camera footage and accuses the officer of never trying.
Around 10:17 a.m., the officer told a Calhoun’s employee, “I can’t get down there. He’ll drown my (expletive),” the complaint says, before he told Clabo to relax as a rescue boat was on the way.
According to the complaint, there were boats with flotation devices near Calhoun’s dock. Despite this, the officers didn’t attempt to use the floats or boats to save Clabo, the complaint says.
“Witnesses to the incident further stated that the officers … repeatedly warned Calhoun’s employees and patrons who wanted to help Mika from rendering him any aid,” the complaint says.
After Clabo went under water, divers recovered his body at around 12:40 p.m., according to the complaint, which says his cause of death was determined to be an accidental drowning by the Medical Examiner’s Office.
The lawsuit accuses Knoxville and its police chief of failing to train officers to “properly and safely handle” life-threatening situations.
Not many law enforcement officers are trained in water safety despite undergoing various types of training, according to a 2019 report by the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services offering water safety tips for authorities.
Although officers may choose to rescue someone from the water, doing so could endanger them, according to the report.
“Officers are not always the best person for a water rescue; waiting for the arrival of a specially trained and equipped rescue team could offer the best chance of survival for all,” the report says.
With her lawsuit, Williams-Clabo is seeking $1.5 million in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages, the complaint shows.