A tragic national trend continued Sunday in the latest incident of police killing an unarmed individual suffering from mental illness or disability. After allegedly stating “I don’t have time for this,” a police officer shot unarmed North Carolina resident Keith Vidal, 18, in the chest, fatally wounding the 5’3″, 90-pound teen. Vidal, who suffered from schizophrenia, had been experiencing a psychotic episode and his family was unable to calm him down.
During the episode, Vidal’s stepfather, Mark Wilsey, called 911 for help and reported that Vidal had refused to take his medication and was attempting to fight his mother. Wilsey requested that police take Vidal somewhere he could receive help. According to the family, three officers from three different police departments then arrived on the scene.
The first two officers spoke with Vidal and apparently had some success in calming him down, when the third officer, from the Southport Police Department, arrived 14 minutes later. As stated in a police report obtained by a local news station, one of the officers informed the 911 dispatcher multiple times that that everything at the scene was okay. According to Wilsey, however, when the third officer arrived, he suggested that a Taser be used on Vidal, at which point Vidal attempted to run from the officers.
Although the accounts are somewhat unclear on the events that transpired next, Vidal was apparently “Tased” twice and restrained on the ground by one or both of the first two officers when the third officer stated “I don’t have time for this” and shot Vidal in the chest. The shooting occurred a mere 70 seconds after the third officer arrived on the scene. At this time, only Vidal’s family members have released statements concerning the shooting.
This incident marks the latest in a series of tragedies that underscore the urgent need for better training and policies and procedures to guide police officers interacting with individuals with mental illness or disability. The case is similar to the police-involved killing last year of 26-year-old Robert Ethan Saylor, who suffered from Down Syndrome and was, ironically, an avid supporter of local law enforcement. Saylor died of asphyxiation after being placed on the ground by three off-duty police officers who had forcibly removed him from a movie theater for attempting to sit through a second showing of a movie he had only paid once to see. Saylor was a gregarious and popular member of his community and his death has been met with widespread outrage.
In our experience, the best way to bring about change in law enforcement agencies is through civil litigation. While precise claims will vary depending on the facts of each case, law enforcement agencies may be liable for federal civil-rights violations or under state-law principles of negligent hiring, retention, or supervision. Such cases may also give rise to criminal investigations that can lead to criminal prosecution.
Unlike other law firms that focus only on the civil recovery, STSW’s Victim Rights Practice Group fights to protect the rights and interests of victims and their families throughout the criminal investigation and prosecution stages while vigorously pursuing civil claims against criminal offenders and responsible third parties. STSW partners with groups such as the National Center for Victims of Crime, The Network for Victim Recovery DC, Parents of Murdered Children, and others to address the full array of crime victims’ legal goals in a manner that helps them heal and recover. This compassionate, creative, and holistic approach is particularly appropriate in tragic cases such as this one.