A man who was arrested in 2011 and later found by jail staff paralyzed is suing the city of Lincoln and Lancaster County, saying police should have taken him into emergency protective custody.

Arok Atem of Lincoln suffers from mental illness, according to the lawsuit alleging his rights were violated and seeking damages.

In the lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court in Lincoln, his attorney, Maren Chaloupka of Scottsbluff, said Lincoln police officers should have known Atem was a danger to his own safety when they arrested him April 29, 2011.

Chaloupka said he was at Bryan West Campus being evaluated for psychiatric illness and minor abrasions.

"Atem was combative, agitated and confused. He was arguing with nonexistent people and expressing suicidal and hallucinatory thoughts," she wrote. "In the course of his arguments with nonexistent persons, he became violent and threw a phone and a computer monitor."

She said he needed medical care for acute psychiatric illness and was exhibiting clear signs of mental disturbance.

At the time, police described Atem's behavior as a drunken rage.

They said when he walked into the hospital -- drunk and having trouble breathing -- staff there thought he might have been assaulted.

Police said the Sudanese immigrant who speaks limited English become enraged when hospital staff had trouble understanding him.

They said Atem called and yelled at his mother, then threw a phone before grabbing a computer monitor and throwing it.

Hospital security held him until police arrived, and he then was jailed on suspicion of disturbing the peace and vandalism. Those charges were dismissed later.

Chaloupka said jail staff put him in a suicide safety cell because of the things he said, but, she alleges, jail staff didn't watch him like they should have.

"(The county) had every reason to be vigilant for signs of serious mental illness and self-harm toward detainees in general and toward Atem in particular."

Yet they disregarded, and were deliberately indifferent to, warning signs of mental illness and that he was suicidal, Chaloupka said.

Two days later, on May 1, 2011, jail personnel reported finding Atem "in need of medical attention."

He was taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with spinal cord fractures.

Police began investigating whether his injury -- which happened five months after a murder suspect hurt himself by jumping off a dividing wall in a holding cell in a suicide attempt -- was intentional or accidental.

Atem is a quadriplegic now.

In the lawsuit, Chaloupka says Lincoln police and county jailers were indifferent to Atem's medical needs and violated his constitutional rights, and that the city and county were to blame for failing to train them.

In March, Atem filed a $1 million tort claim with the city and county on the allegations, but neither took action on it. He withdrew it in October, setting up the lawsuit.

Now Atem is seeking punitive damages for what Chaloupka called acts and omissions "so gross and culpable in nature they they constitute reckless indifference and wanton disregard for the law and the lives and safety of others, including Atem."

She said they should be punished, and an example should be made, so it doesn't happen again.

The city and county have not responded to the lawsuit. Reached Friday afternoon, Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly declined to comment on it.

Reach Lori Pilger at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com or follow her on Twitter at LJSpilger.

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