Chris Ann Lewis and her five daughters have spent almost two years trying to get justice for their son and little brother Matthew Zadok Williams, who was killed by a DeKalb County police officer.
“This has to stop. The senseless killing of the mentally ill, it has to stop,” Lewis said. “They’re our brothers, our husbands, our sons, our cousins, our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends, our church members. It has to stop.”
The youngest of six children, Williams was fatally shot in 2021. The 35-year-old’s family recently filed a federal lawsuit against DeKalb County, alleging that the county violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to train its officers on how to safely arrest people with mental illness.
Lewis told Capital B Atlanta that the family decided to pursue a civil suit after DeKalb District Attorney Sherry Boston called the use of force justified and declined to file charges against the officer who shot Williams.
The family says Williams was in the middle of a mental health crisis on the day he was killed and should have been given medical care once the police officers on the scene understood what was happening.
Since 2015, 21% percent of people shot by an on-duty police officer have been mentally ill, according to a Washington Post database tracking police shootings. By invoking the ADA, the Williams’ lawsuit has the potential to fundamentally change how law enforcement responds to incidents involving people who are mentally ill.
On April 12, 2021, two DeKalb police officers responded to a 911 call from Williams’ neighbor reporting a prowler in a vacant home in Decatur. Williams had lived in the town house since 2009; it was the unit next to his that had been vacated.
According to the lawsuit, Williams was locked out of his home with a pair of rubber gloves, a bucket, and a plumber’s knife when two DeKalb police officers approached and spoke to him. Williams was not responsive, then the officers told him he had to leave the property if he didn’t live there.
On body camera footage released days after the deadly shooting, one of the officers is having a conversation with the neighbor, who tells him the owners of the home have vacated the property for remodeling, so no one is supposed to be on the property.
A statement from DeKalb police released the day after the shooting says Williams “lunged at officers with the knife causing one of them to discharge their firearm.”
Both officers then retreated to wait for backup, and Williams re-entered his town house by breaking a window. DeKalb police Sgt. Devon Perry then arrives at William’s home, where the front door was still locked.
At this point, the lawsuit states, Williams has become a “barricaded individual” and the officers on the scene should have called SWAT, which department policy requires.
Perry, authorized by his superior officer Lt. James, ordered an officer to kick down Williams’ front door. Officers then kick the door open four times, and each time Williams, hidden in a crouching position, is able to reach out to shut the door. After an officer kicks the door open again, Perry calls for the use of a Taser, but it does not connect and Williams again shuts the door.
An officer kicks the door open once more, and as Williams reaches out to close it, Perry fires three shots, hitting Williams. According to the suit, Williams bled to death while Perry and James waited for SWAT to arrive.
Not the first time
Central to the family’s case is a March 16 incident where DeKalb police were dispatched to Williams’ home but no medical or mental health services were provided.
According to the lawsuit, Williams told the 911 dispatcher he was being stalked and made references to the devil. “He did the thing I’ve been waiting on, he asked for help,” Lewis said. “He asked for them to send an ambulance, and they didn’t do it.”
The officers remained at Williams’ home for over an hour and reported the incident as a “behavioral health crisis.” One of those officers, Mikhail Morgan, was one of the two called back to the property a few weeks later. There was no police report generated for the March 16 incident, and there is no body camera footage available from that day.
“Had he been given proper care back on March the 16th when he called for help, then we don’t get to April the 12th. We don’t get to them using deadly force against the man in his own home,” said Mawuli Davis, the family’s lawyer.
Morgan’s previous contact with Williams is part of the family’s argument that DeKalb police were fully aware that Williams was mentally ill.
The lawsuit contends that in addition to Williams erratic behavior on the day of his death, the officers knew he was experiencing a mental health crisis because Morgan had responded to the previous 911 call.
According to the lawsuit, after the shooting, Perry told the DeKalb police Internal Review Board that he attempted to call the county Mobile Crisis Unit while en route to Williams home because he was aware Williams was having a mental health crisis. The MCU is one registered nurse and one police officer who are trained to evaluate and intervene when an individual is experiencing a mental health crisis in the community.
A family’s fight
Lewis said she and her husband had five girls, trying for a son, before they had Zadok, as he was called. His sister, Dr. Beulah Williams, said the family has always been very close-knit.
“Everyone respected [Zadok]; even though he was the youngest, we all respected his opinion,” she said. “After my father died, he became sort of like the man of the family, and he carried himself that way.”
The family is suing DeKalb County under Title II of the ADA, which says that state and local government services cannot discriminate against people based on disability. They’re asking the court to award them a financial settlement and attorney’s fees. Williams’ mother said her son was living with mental illness and the family had challenges helping him deal with this health.
“When you have a family member with mental illness who lives independently and is no harm to themself or anyone else, you cannot control them,” said Lewis, who regularly checked in on her son and encouraged him to get help.
Beulah Williams says the loss of her brother has been devastating. “It’s just been so traumatic, especially when you have to take things into your own hands to find out the truth,” she said. “We had to watch body cam footage — that wasn’t easy, but that was the only way we were going to get the truth.”
Davis has been representing the family since Williams’ death. When it comes to the suit, he said that because the courts have no clear precedent for how the ADA applies when it comes to the arrest of an individual in a mental health crisis, a win for the family — if successful — would be a landmark ruling.
Emory University School of Law professor Ani Satz, an expert in health and disability law, told Capital B Atlanta the lawsuit sits at the intersection of police procedure and the ADA.
“The police officer has to determine if, at that moment, the person is in a crisis. And if so, then that should trigger services,” she said.
The services available were the MCU, which was not available at the time of both incidents.
“There is a massive overestimation of the danger of people with mental disabilities. Unfortunately, there is often a perceived threat when there is not an actual threat,” Satz said.
While the police department is responsible for the training of its officers, the lawsuit argues that fault lies with more than just DeKalb police.
“This is a system failure,” Davis said. “That’s why it was so appropriate to have as the sole defendant in the case DeKalb County — the entire county failed Matthew Zadok Williams and his family.”
The lawsuit notes that DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond twice asked the county Board of Commissioners for a funding increase to the DeKalb County Health Board, which operates the MCU. In 2020, Thurmond asked for a 44% increase. In 2021, he asked for a 13% increase. Neither request was approved.
The underfunding of mental health services and lack of mandatory crisis intervention training for DeKalb police officers are two of the ways Davis says the county failed Williams and his family. CIT specifically trains individuals on how to interact with someone who is going through a mental health crisis.
“I mean, the irony of it all is that they are prepared to build a training facility that’ll cost $90 million and destroy all of these woods, but they can’t invest in getting the training that can protect the life not only of their officers, but of citizens,” Davis said, alluding to the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, known as “Cop City.” “It’s a matter of political will.”
DeKalb County has until mid-April to respond to the lawsuit.
According to Mark Begnaud, a civil rights and personal injury attorney based in Decatur, the validity of the case will be called into question.
“What I would expect here is that the county will file a motion to dismiss and argue that the ADA is not the proper mechanism to address a police shooting,” Begnaud said. “They’ll be saying that this is not a proper lawsuit.”
If the judge decides the civil suit can proceed, Begnaud said, the case goes into discovery, meaning both sides collect the evidence they will use to argue their case, which can take six months to a year. While Begnaud said he cannot predict the judge’s decisions, the majority of cases where people are suing the government are dismissed at some point in the legal process.
“I tell people it’s very hard to sue the government because the government makes the rules about when you can sue the government,” he said.
If the family is successful in this case, Begnaud said, it is likely the county would change its policies to avoid further litigation and potential settlement payments. “This is a unique way to approach this case,” he said. “I haven’t seen an ADA claim personally where, on its face, the case looks like an excessive force claim.”
Beulah Williams said her family is not focused on the odds of winning their case, but they are hopeful.
“We want a systematic change,” she said. “We don’t want anyone else to have to go through this.”