State Police sued in shooting of mentally ill man
Family alleges poor training, procedures
The 911 call that June morning in 2013 described a man “who seemed to be distraught” by the side of the road. And when a state trooper arrived at the scene on busy Route 28 in Quincy, he found exactly that: Wilfredo Justiniano, 41, shouting at the officer to go ahead and kill him.
What happened next, according to a lawsuit to be filed Tuesday in US District Court, violated Justiniano’s civil rights and caused his wrongful death by excessive force. When chemical spray did not stop the agitated, unarmed man from advancing toward him, the state trooper shot and killed Justiniano, of New Bedford, who suffered from schizophrenia and lived with his mother.
The complaint, filed by Justiniano’s younger sister Damaris Justiniano against Colonel Timothy P. Alben, the head of the Massachusetts State Police, and Trooper Stephen Walker, a 25-year veteran, alleges that Alben failed to provide the agency with “policies, procedures and equipment allowing citizens with mental health crises to be treated through humane, nonlethal means.”
That failure came despite a decade of increasing interaction between police and people with mental illness, and growing concern about those encounters turning tragic, according to the suit, which was provided to the Globe.
“I want people to know that Wilfredo did not deserve to get killed,” Damaris Justiniano said in a statement. “He was not a criminal, as government officials have tried to portray him in the media. He was unarmed. He just needed help.”
A spokesman for the State Police, David Procopio, declined to comment on the lawsuit Monday, citing the pending litigation.
After an investigation in 2013, Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey found the shooting was justified and described it as “a tragedy for all involved.” He said witness statements supported the trooper’s claim that he tried to defuse the confrontation before shooting Justiniano.
In a statement given by Walker after the shooting, he said he tried to calm Justiniano down, assuring him that he would not kill him. When Walker noticed a pen in Justiniano’s hand, he told him to drop it. Instead, the trooper said, the man moved toward him, saying, “You want it, you’re going to have to kill me.”
Walker said Justiniano also threatened his life. According to his statement, he administered chemical spray twice; when Justiniano kept coming at him, he shot him twice, including once in the chest.
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages — including Justiniano’s funeral and burial expenses — comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of the use of force by police, following fatal shootings of unarmed black youths and men in South Carolina, Ohio, Missouri, and elsewhere.
Some of the high-profile cases have involved men with histories of mental illness, including Anthony Hill, 27, who was naked and unarmed when he was shot by police in DeKalb County, Ga., last month, and Jason Harrison, who was off his medication when he was shot and killed by police in Dallas last year. Harrison’s mother had called 911 to ask police for help in bringing him to a hospital for treatment.
As states have reduced inpatient beds for the mentally ill, the burden on police has grown exponentially, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, an independent research group based in Washington, D.C.
In some states, police have invested in crisis response teams specially trained to respond to calls involving a mental health crisis. But obstacles persist even with such teams in place, Wexler said: If a 911 caller is a stranger, it might be impossible for him or her to know a mental illness is involved and to tell police that information.
“This is one of the issues that keeps police chiefs up at night because when it doesn’t go well, it’s horrible,” he said. “We’ve made a lot of progress, but we probably need to redouble our efforts.”
In Massachusetts, efforts to increase mental health training for police have sharply increased in the past year, pushed by the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Police recruits statewide must now receive 16 hours of training, taught by both a police trainer and a mental health clinician, and a three-hour version has more recently been mandated for all 17,000 existing police officers in the state.
About 2,000 officers have had the training, said June Binney, director of the alliance’s criminal justice program. The group is also spearheading an effort to train more police crisis intervention teams.
“We’re playing catch-up, and we’re getting there,” said Binney, who credited the head of the State Police training division, Lieutenant Colonel Sharon Costine, for her partnership on the issue.
The family’s lawsuit challenges the State Police for failing to install cameras in its cruisers and for failing to implement the use of less-lethal weapons such as Tasers.
“Today, almost everyone knows somebody or has a loved one with a mental health disorder,” Damaris Justiniano said. “These disorders need treatment; they should not result in a death sentence.”
Jenna Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.