The family of a Decatur, Georgia, man killed by police as he was experiencing an apparent mental health crisis is suing the county, alleging it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The lawsuit stems from Matthew Zadok Williams’ controversial shooting by DeKalb County police officers in April 2021 at the 35-year-old’s townhome. It accuses the county of disability discrimination and failing to train officers to safely handle people with mental illnesses.
“My son was only 35 years old, he was my only son, he was my baby,” Williams’ mother, Chris Ann Lewis, said at a Feb. 17 news conference.
The legal complaint details the sequence of events on April 12, 2021, when Williams was killed. It alleges some of the responding officers knew Williams suffered from mental illness because they’d answered previous calls for service to his home.
According to the lawsuit, Williams called 911 “at least two times” requesting assistance on March 16, 2021. Williams was experiencing a mental health crisis. He requested an ambulance and the FBI be sent to his home after he reported he was “being stalked.” He reportedly referenced “the devil” while speaking with the 911 dispatcher.
“He called for help. On March 16, think about it, three weeks before this happened on April 12,” attorney Mawuli Davis said.
Two officers responded to Williams’ home on March 16. One of the responding officers, Mikhail Morgan, also responded to his home the day he was killed. The lawsuit alleges Officer Morgan “knew that Zadok was having a mental health crisis.”
The officers reportedly detailed the incident as a “behavioral health crisis.” The lawsuit claims no mental health professional was consulted by the officers, no ambulance was called and no police report documented the incident.
The lawsuit also accuses the county of failing to ensure its offers were sufficiently trained in their crisis intervention training (CIT).
The training includes a 40-hour course that teaches officers to recognize and de-escalate situations involving people in a mental health crisis. The lawsuit accuses one of the responding officers, Sgt. Devon Perry of not receiving the training at the time of Williams’ shooting.
“DeKalb County has known for years that it is putting officers and citizens at risk by failing to provide proper training and support for custodial arrests of persons in mental crisis,” attorney Leighton Moore said.
DeKalb County Police Department policy outlines how officers should interact with people suspected to be mentally ill. It gives guidance on identifying people possibly suffering from certain illnesses, including schizophrenia or depression. The policy also gives guidance on how to get speak and move around people mentally unstable and when to call for help.
The lawsuit pinpoints a DKPD policy that “requires an officer to call for specialized assistance when confronted with a “barricaded individual.”
During the shooting, Williams’ barricaded himself behind an ottoman just behind his cracked front door.
“Mental illness has become a national epidemic in our country. If only DeKalb County had taken heed of this, they would have had the proper process in place, and my brother would still be alive today, creating more memories with us,” Williams’ sister Zeporah Williams said.
Williams was shot by police after a woman called police claiming she saw a homeless man in the woods near her home in Decatur, Georgia. The man turned out to be Williams, who was reportedly trying to get back into his home after locking himself out. Williams’ family said he was carrying a knife and bucket at the time because he was doing plumbing-related work around his home.
Bodycam video shows after police arrived, they began a brief interaction with Williams.
One of the officers asked Williams if he lived at the residence. That officer was Morgan.
“Do you know why we’re here?” Morgan asked as Williams walks down the steps on the front side of his townhome.
Once Williams reached the ground, he ran away from the officers. He climbed atop his roof to break into his home from an upstairs window.
Three police officers gathered on Williams’ front porch attempting to get him to open his front door.
“Put the knife down, put the knife down,” officers can be heard yelling.
Williams had positioned himself on the other side of his front door behind an ottoman. The door was slightly cracked to communicate with the officers.
“I’m defending my property,” Williams said to the officers. “Come out and talk to us,” one of the officers replied.
“You’re a Black man, I’m a Black man, you don’t have to die today,” Sgt. Perry told Williams. Perry is named in the lawsuit as acknowledging Williams’ history with mental illness, telling internal affairs investigators he called for a crisis intervention team while en route to the scene on April 12.
Williams was hit by three gunshots by police at close range. Bodycam video shows the officers on the scene did not render immediate aid to Williams as he suffered a gunshot wound to his shoulder. Davis said it took nearly an hour and a half before Williams received medical aid following the shooting. Williams later succumbed to his injuries.
DeKalb County Police said in a news release a day after the shooting Williams “lunged at officers with the knife, causing one of them to discharge their firearm.”
Several protests largely led by Williams’ family erupted in the months following the shooting.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation completed its investigation in July 2021 and sent its findings to DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston’s office. Nearly a year later, Boston declined to press charges against the officers in June 2022.
Boston determined the shooting was “justified,” and the Sgt. Perry, the officer who fatally shot Williams, had “no criminal culpability.”
“These cases are not easy, and every loss of life is a tragedy…However, not every loss of life is a crime,” Boston said during a news conference.
Following Boston’s announcement, Williams’ family accused the district attorney of not considering his mental health state at the time of the shooting. Boston told WABE Williams’ mental health condition did not limit police authority to use deadly force.
Atlanta Black Star requested a comment from DeKalb County regarding the lawsuit allegations, but our requests were not immediately returned.
“They failed my son, they failed the police officers that were there,” Lewis said.
The lawsuit alleged the county violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 when responding to Williams. The lawsuit asks for an unspecified amount in compensatory damages.
“He suffered from a mental health crisis. It should not have been criminalized,” Lewis said.