MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A federal civil rights lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges that a white Memphis police officer used excessive deadly force when he shot and killed a 19-year-old black man during a fight after a traffic stop.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of Darrius Stewart’s parents comes almost a year after he was shot by Officer Connor Schilling as the officer tried to arrest the teen on two active warrants. The suit seeks a jury trial and more than $17 million in damages.
The legal action comes amid a wave of protests against the recent fatal shootings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana by police. Stewart’s death on July 17, 2015, happened in the months after the deaths of black men during confrontations with police in New York, Missouri and other states sparked sharp debate on police use of force and racial profiling.
“We believe this lawsuit stands for more than just the fight for Darrius Stewart,” said Arthur Horne, an attorney for Stewart’s family. “This lawsuit stands for all of the unarmed citizens, young black men, who have been attacked and had their civil rights violated.”
The shooting is being reviewed by the U.S. Justice Department. The lawsuit accuses the police department of having policies that make it “okay to shoot first and ask questions second.” It also claims city policymakers are aware of a “code of silence” within the police department when it comes to officer misconduct.
The City of Memphis “permitted, encouraged, tolerated, and ratified an official pattern, custom, and practice by its officers of shooting first and using excessive and unjustified force,” the lawsuit says.
A woman who answered the phone at the office of Art Quinn, Schilling’s lawyer, said Quinn was out of town Wednesday and could not comment. The city issued a statement saying it is “confident in the policies, procedures, and training” that were in place under Toney Armstrong, who was police chief at the time of the shooting. Armstrong, a defendant in the lawsuit, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
“This case involves the loss of life, and we are very sensitive to that fact,” Bruce McMullen, chief legal officer for the city, said in the statement. “We also understand that police/citizen engagement in diverse communities is part of the current national conversation.”
Stewart was a passenger in a car stopped by Schilling for a headlight violation. Authorities say Schilling ran Stewart’s identification and found the teen had outstanding warrants from Illinois and Iowa, including one for a sexual abuse charge from 2009, when Stewart was 13. Schilling had put Stewart in the back of his squad car, without handcuffs, as he checked on the warrants.
Dispatchers then told Schilling that Stewart should be arrested. As the officer approached the back of the squad car to handcuff Stewart, he kicked open the door, grabbed the handcuffs and starting beating the officer with them, authorities have said.
As they fought on the ground, Schilling fired his service weapon. The teen died at a hospital of two gunshot wounds, a medical examiner found.
Schilling has said he shot Stewart because he feared for his life.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation issued a report of more than 800 pages on the shooting. Video shows Schilling and Stewart wrestling on the ground, and the medical examiner told investigators Stewart was shot from no more than 4 feet away. Two witnesses said Stewart was shot as he ran away; Schilling has said Stewart ran after being shot, then collapsed about 60 yards away.
Murray Wells, an attorney for the Stewart family, said the excessive-force claim was partly based on the reports that Stewart was running away when he was shot.
Schilling was not charged with any crime by a grand jury, despite a recommendation from Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich that he should be charged with voluntary manslaughter and employment of a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony. Police said Schilling retired due to a disability, a move that allows him to receive disability pay. Activists had called for his firing.