The parents of Miciah Lee, an 18-year-old Black Nevadan with a history of mental illness who was killed by Sparks police in January, are suing the department and City of Sparks.
Terri Keyser-Cooper and Peter Goldstein are the attorneys representing Lee’s parents, Susan Clopp and Paris Fridge. In the civil complaint against the city, they allege the officers who pursued and ultimately shot Lee violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by failing to deescalate the situation.
“Police officers employed by the City of Sparks were called to take a suicidal teenager they knew to be severely mentally ill into custody, for his own safety,” the complaint states. “But within minutes of approaching him shot him dead.”
The complaint names four members of the Sparks Police Department: Officers Eric DeJesus, Ryan Patterson, James Hammerstone and Lieutenant James Ahdunko.
“The officers’ actions were contrary to proper police practices for dealing with mentally
disabled persons,” the complaint continues. “At the time Miciah drove off, he was not wanted to any crime, there were no outstanding warrants for his arrest.”
The Sparks Police Department and City of Sparks declined to comment for this story, because the case is in ongoing civil litigation.
In June, the Washoe County District Attorney’s Office declined to file criminal charges against the officers involved.
In an interview with CapRadio, Keyser-Cooper explained the ADA applies to people with mental illness, like Lee. The civil complaint includes a history of Lee’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder, the treatment he received and the challenges it presented for him and his family.
That’s significant for the Lee case, because ADA violations do not allow police to use the controversial qualified immunity defense, a legal doctrine that shields officers from claims of wrongdoing, according to advocates — and federal judge Carlton Reeves.
“The ADA and the lawsuit against the City of Sparks are not covered by qualified immunity,” Keyser-Cooper said. “They cannot use that as a defense by law.”
The claim stems from the sequence of events that led to Lee’s death.
According to the complaint, Lee told his brothers he was going to drive away and kill himself with a handgun or die by “suicide by cop” on the afternoon of Jan. 5. At that point, Lee’s mother, Susan Clopp, called the police for help, explaining her son’s mental health crisis and his desire to die. But while she was on the phone with the dispatcher, he sped off.
Minutes later, Sparks Police Officer Ryan Patterson identified Lee’s car and began a pursuit that ended with Patterson firing five bullets at Lee. Another officer, Eric DeJesus, also shot him from the other side of his car.
Authorities later pronounced Lee dead at the scene. He had not been accused of any crime.
“His mother notified Sparks PD that her son was severely mentally ill,” Keyser-Cooper said. “Once they’re on notice that someone is mentally ill, they have to make a plan to accommodate that person’s mental illness.”
The civil complaint also claims the Sparks Police Department failed to properly prepare the officers to deal with someone having a mental health crisis, which also prevents officers from claiming qualified immunity.
“They killed Miciah Lee because they didn’t have the training,” Keyser-Cooper said. “They could’ve diverted traffic and had this dialogue with him. And even if it lasted an hour, or longer, they could’ve saved him. That’s what they were there to do.”
Norris DuPree Jr. is a psychologist and licensed therapist from Reno. He works with at-risk youth in the community and serves as a consultant for local law enforcement agencies.
He said he believes most police are unprepared for the complicated situations that arise when someone has a mental health crisis.
“Individuals that are manic, individuals that are suicidal, sometimes they are irrational,” he said.
DuPree advocates for better training of law enforcement officers but also systemic change in the way Nevada authorities approach mental health.
“By the time you get to the police, it’s too late,” he said. “We need to focus on prevention versus intervention.”
In the Lee case, DuPree questions whether police officers were the appropriate people to respond to the call. “He was looking to commit suicide by cop,” he said. “Should they be the one that’s intervening when they are the ones that are the stimulus for something to happen?”
DuPree is also troubled by the number of African Americans with mental health issues who die in Reno-Sparks. “That is a concern,” he said.
Both cities have a combined population of just over 330,000 according to the United States Census Bureau.
But according to data collected by Fatal Encounters, the first national database of police use-of-force incidents, Sparks police have killed 18 people since 2002.
Lee is the only person killed by Sparks police who the database identifies as Black. While Latinx residents make up a disproportionate share, several records don’t specify the race of the person killed.
Brian Burghart is founder of Fatal Encounters. He’s also the former editor of Reno News & Review, where he covered the community for years.
He says many police killings in the U.S. involve a person with mental illness or addiction problems — which, according to DuPree, often arise when people with mental illness attempt to self-medicate.
Burghart says the top three commonalities among people killed by police in the U.S. are that they’re men, they’re low-income and they have mental health issues. He explained that race is also a factor in police killings. But according to his analysis, mental illness was more common.
“Definitely African American men and Native American men are overrepresented in the data,” he said. “But mental illness is far and away more of a commonality.”
Ultimately, Burghart says the high number of people with mental illness who are killed by police suggests a different approach is necessary.
“If they’d responded to this kid with a psychologist instead of a cop, he might still be alive,” Burghart said.
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