Police Watched as a Man Drowned and Discouraged Bystanders From Helping, Lawsuit Claims

When a bystander offered to give the officers flotation devices and a small boat, they refused.


A Tennessee man drowned last year as police watched and actively discouraged others from helping the man. Now, the man's mother has filed a lawsuit against the officers, claiming their negligence caused her son's death.

Mika Wheeler Clabo was a 30-year-old man who had been experiencing a mental health crisis when he ran into the Tennessee River in Knoxville on the morning of July 25, 2022. A few minutes after falling into the water—which was murky and filled with vines and branches—four police officers and two EMTs had arrived on the scene.

According to the suit, Clabo "yelled out several times, gasping and groaning, desperate for help, as he tried in vain to pull himself up or free himself from the vines that snared him." However " for approximately fifteen minutes, other than coaxing Mika on by yelling at him to 'swim' or 'get out,' no one helped him."

As the gathered first responders watched, several employees at a nearby restaurant offered to help Clabo. One man even offered to give the officers access to a storage area that held flotation devices and a small boat but was refused.

"These men and others were warned off by the KPD officers against making any effort to help Mika, with one officer repeatedly telling them 'he'll drown you too' or words to that effect," the lawsuit claims. Instead, the officers said they were waiting for a rescue boat.

But the rescue boat came too late. The lawsuit claims that 13 minutes after falling into the river, Clabo's head went underwater. Though the rescue boat arrived just a few minutes later, Clabo had drowned, and his body had become so entangled with the vines in the riverbank that it would not be recovered for two hours.

"The officers acted recklessly by merely watching a man who they believed to be mentally compromised struggling to free himself from vines, brush, and tree limbs before drowning," the lawsuit states. "It is clear that the officers knew there was a substantial risk of death to Mika, yet consciously chose a course of action that ignored that deathly risk."

However, while the officers' indifference as Clabo drowned was disturbing, it's unlikely that the lawsuit against them will succeed. In 2005, the Supreme Court found that the police have no legal duty to protect individuals from harm. In failing to rescue Clabo, the officers may have acted callously and cruelly—but also likely within the law.