FAIRFIELD, Ohio – The officer involved in the January shooting death of a 23-year-old man in Fairfield will not face charges, a grand jury decided.
Officials said Officer Scott Conklin, a 10-year veteran of the Fairfield Police Department, shot Caleb Surface just before 8 p.m. on Jan. 18 in a cul-de-sac at the end of Saint Andrews Court.
After reviewing evidence and witness statements, the Butler County Grand Jury ruled Conklin was justified in his use of lethal force.
“On the date of this incident, the record is clear that Caleb Surface was bent on self-destruction and used a police officer in the proper exercise of his duties to accomplish that purpose,” Butler County Prosecutor Michael T. Gmoser said. “The public can have confidence that this incident was thoroughly investigated to justify the conclusion of the grand jury.”
Authorities said Surface broke into his father's home in the 2000 block of Spyglass Hill Court the night of the shooting. The 23-year-old had forced his way into at least one other home on the street before, and was hit with a string of drug charges in the past, records show.
Gmoser said Surface was diagnosed with suicidal ideation resulting from an attempted suicide and a depressive disorder before his death. On the night on the shooting, authorities said he continued to express “intent to kill himself by means of a firearm.”
According to a postmortem toxicology report, Surface ingested multiple mind-altering drugs and alcohol the night of his death.
“The conduct of (Surface) resulting from mental derangement, suicidal ideation, alcohol and drug abuse and other factors known only to himself took a tremendous toll upon the resources of the local community and the state of Ohio, not the least of which is the toll upon police officer Scott Conklin,” Gmoser said. “(Conklin) will probably spend a lifetime with the burden saying to himself, ‘If only I had known.’
When Surface broke into his father’s home, authorities said the two physically fought, which led to Surface’s father calling 911.
Surface fled the house through a back door when Fairfield police officers arrived.
Investigators said Surface then made his way through the neighborhood knocking on doors and eventually entered a home illegally. When the home’s owner kicked Surface out, a pursuit spanned less than a block before Conklin confronted him.
Walking in snow in dark conditions, Conklin identified himself as a police officer and ordered Surface to stop, authorities said.
Gmoser said Surface told the officer, “I have a gun. Leave me alone.”
He said Surface then continued to walk away from the officer and upon further demands stated, “Are you not listening to me? I have a gun. I will kill you!”
At that time, Conklin was about 30 feet away, investigators said.
“Based upon the statements made, he appropriately drew his service weapon and ordered (Surface) to put his hands up.” Gmoser said. “Surface initially complied, but then placed his right hand in his pocket in a furtive gesture, also observed by a civilian witness, at which point Conklin fired two shots at (Surface) for his own protection.”
Surface was fatally struck and fell face down. When he was turned over by investigators, he was holding a silver portable telephone in his right hand.
At the time of the incident, Conklin was under consideration for discharge for violation of administrative policies. Gmoser said it was decided those violations did not contribute to Conklin’s decision to shoot Surface.
Conklin received a slew of "unsatisfactory" and "needs improvement" ratings in his most recent performance review.
During Conklin's 90 day evaluation for the period of Sept. 6, 2013 to Dec. 6, 2013, he received the lowest possible rating from his managers for his "reliability, attendance and timeliness."
"During this 90 day period, Officer Conklin was scheduled to work a total of 61 work days. Of those 61, (he) worked 26 full days and four partial days," the evaluation states. "He took a total of 31 full days and 4 partial days off."
Conklin also received the lowest possible rating for his "adherence to policies, rules and instructions."
For his "quality of work," Conklin was given a rating of two out of five, meaning he "needs improvement." Officials noted Conklin failed to meet a traffic stop standard in November and also received a complaint from a driver in an injury accident for failing to get a witness statement.
For his "initiative," Conklin was also given a two.
"Officer Conklin has shown no interest in expanding his knowledge or taking of new tasks, which was discussed with him...," the report states.
Conklin was also involved in a civil hearing in October filed against him by a co-worker. In September, he was assigned to a Citizen Police Academy rider. Conklin "cut the ride short" and sent the rider home. She told his supervisors the ride was "less than satisfactory" and "Conklin did not seem to like his job."
In a past evaluation conducted
in February of 2013, Conklin received a similar scathing review from his supervisors, which included a note that he failed to show for a scheduled blood alcohol content testing in October of 2012.
Officials also said Conklin struggled to write "accurate reports," had issues of long response times and did not follow up on three assigned cases.
Surface’s cousin Ed Kathman said the 23-year-old was fighting to overcome addiction before he was shot and killed by Conklin.
“It’s just an ongoing struggle with chemical dependency," Kathman said. "He was a good kid. He just struggled with drugs.”
Kathman is an attorney and said he represented Surface in some of his cases.
Before his death, Surface wrote on his Facebook page, "Beer and gun hmmm what to do." He later posted, "Last words?"
Surface’s family said he was "a kind-hearted young man who had many challenges with chemical dependency during his time on Earth."
"Caleb's father, who has solely raised his son since age ten, has dedicated his life to helping Caleb overcome these issues," the family's lawyer said. "It is our prayer that Caleb has finally found the peace that he struggled to achieve in life."
Conklin was placed on paid administrative leave while the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations and the Fairfield Police Department investigated.
Hamilton Police Department Sgt. Ed Buns said Friday that Conklin is back on duty. He said the incident reinforces the degree of training required of officers.
"That's what our training aims to do is react," Buns said. "When confronted with a threat you don't have time to think about it because when you think, you lose -- and in our profession, you die."