Protecting the mentally disabled from police use of deadly force

SEVEN hundred forty-eight people have been shot and killed by police in 2017 nationwide, according to an ongoing project by The Washington Post. Of these shootings, mental illness played a role in 1 in 5 of incidents. In 2015, when the Post started this project, an analysis of 400 police killings found that 25% of people shot and killed by police were identified as mentally ill, and family members, neighbors or bystanders had called the police seeking help because someone was acting suicidal, behaving erratically or threatening violence.
Various sources estimate that anywhere from 33 to 50 percent of those killed by police throughout the country have a disability, with approximately 25 percent of people killed having a mental illness.  Consider the story of John Berry:
John had parked his BMW on the front lawn of his home and continued to sit inside the car refusing to come out. His brother, Chris Berry, called the L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputies for help. Chris advised that John was diagnosed with a mental illness and needs to be transported to a medical facility.
Three patrol units responded and arrived at the Berry home. John moved his BMW off the lawn and into the street, and one of the patrol units collided with and blocked him. The deputies then yelled orders at John to get out of the car. John did not get out. After more backup arrived, deputies opened both the passenger and driver’s side doors. John was still seated in the driver’s seat. The deputies used pepper spray directly into John’s face, struck him several times with their batons, and tased him. The deputies claimed John kicked them from the driver’s seat still refusing to exit the car.
While the deputies were trying to forcibly get John out of the car, the BMW started rocking forward. After two of the deputies moved out of the way, the BMW then slowly rolled backward and stopped when a rear wheel hit the curb. While the car moved backward, deputies fired 33 rounds into the car, killing John. John’s mother, Susan and adult siblings, Melissa and Chris, and John’s underage niece watched helplessly as the whole incident unfolded.
John’s family sued the county claiming unlawful detention, excessive force, and denial of medical care in violation of the Fourth Amendment, among others.
The deputies claimed that they fired because, as the BMW moved backwards, they saw a deputy allegedly pinned between the BMW and a patrol unit. Other deputies claimed they saw a deputy being run over by the BMW.
During the incident, a neighbor had taken a cell phone video of the incident. Still images from the video showed that no deputy was in the car’s path at the time of the shots. The video also showed a deputy crouched near the ground but he was in clear view of the shooting deputies during the gunfire. The video showed him stand up, uninjured, as the deputies kept firing.
As reported by the Daily Journal, rather than proceed to trial, the parties reached a global settlement of all claims for $3.3 million.
John Berry did not have to die in an encounter with police. Greater sensitivity should be given by police officers when they interact with mentally disabled persons. Better training on how to recognize mental disabilities, and learning how to engage persons with disabilities, and deescalate critical situations without resort to lethal force, should be provided.  By doing so, we can save precious human lives.

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The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit or our Facebook page Joe Sayas Law. [C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. is an experienced trial attorney who has successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is the recipient of PABA’s Community Champion Award for 2016.]

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