The father of a man who died last year after police chased him into Portland’s Back Cove has filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit alleging that officers stood by and watched his son drown instead of taking steps to save his life.
Eric Cohen, 25, died on April 12, 2020, after he ran naked into the 41-degree water during what police described as a mental health crisis.
John Cohen of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages along with attorney fees.
The complaint was filed Wednesday in the U.S District Court in Portland and named the city of Portland, Sgt. Christopher Gervais, Sgt. Michael Rand and an unidentified firefighter as defendants.
Jessica Grondin, spokeswoman for Portland, declined to comment on the pending litigation.
Cohen’s attorney, Verne Paradie of Lewiston, also said he had no comment on the lawsuit.
The incident that led to Eric Cohen running into the water began at about 1 p.m. that Sunday when he allegedly assaulted his girlfriend, leaving her unconscious, and a bystander who came to help her near the Miss Portland Diner on Marginal Way.
Eric Cohen fled across Interstate 295 toward the running path along Back Cove, police said last year. Police found him on the running path near the interstate off ramps.
He entered the water naked and was “experiencing some form of psychosis” at 1:23 p.m., the same time Gervais requested the Portland Fire Department provide him and two other officers a boat for a water rescue, the complaint said. Gervais drove across the city to the Maine State Pier where the boat was docked, a trip that allegedly took 11 minutes.
Rescue personnel estimated that Cohen could survive about 15 minutes due to the 43-degree air temperature that day combined with the water temperature.
Rand arrived at the shoreline at 1:39 p.m. and allegedly told his fellow officers that Cohen, who was about 30 feet offshore in waist-deep water, had “done a good job of staying afloat in this temperature for so long,” according to the complaint.
A couple of minutes later, the firefighter — identified in the lawsuit only as John Doe — allegedly yelled to Cohen, “I will kick your ass if you come out of the water,” according to the complaint.
By the time Cohen was seen going under the water at about 1:42 p.m., nine police and fire rescue personnel allegedly were on shore watching events unfold.
“No personnel on shore made any attempt to rescue Mr. Cohen, though the means and equipment (rope, rings, life jackets, etc.) necessary to do so were available,” the complaint alleges.
An ambulance was not called to the scene until 1:46 p.m., one minute before Gervais and others on the rescue boat retrieved Cohen’s body after he had been in the water for 24 minutes, the complaint said. Gervais could not find a pulse.
Cohen’s body was brought on shore three minutes later, but no one attempted to resuscitate him, the complaint said. It was not until an ambulance arrived at the scene that resuscitation efforts were made.
He was taken to Maine Medical Center and pronounced dead at 2:52 p.m., about 90 minutes after he went into Back Cove. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled Cohen’s death an accident caused by drowning and hypothermia.