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Crime

Family of man fatally shot by Baltimore County police near Hunt Valley Towne Center alleges wrongful death

Two Baltimore County police officers “immediately” opened fire in 2019 on a man experiencing a mental health crisis — who reportedly had stabbed several people at the Hunt Valley Towne Center — without attempting to deescalate the situation or speak with him, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the man’s estate.

Jamaal Taylor, 31, of Northeast Baltimore, was walking away from officers and posed no immediate threat when they drew their weapons and shot him to death, according to the suit, filed last week, which calls the officers’ conduct “unjustified and unreasonable.”

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Baltimore County Police said in September 2019 that officers “were forced” to fire at Taylor, who was accused of stabbing or injuring five people at the suburban shopping center. Five victims were taken to the hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening, according to police.

The two officers, identified as Officers Wise and Brocato, “resorted to deadly force” when they saw Taylor was not going to drop his knife, the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office wrote in a letter declining to bring criminal charges. Then-Deputy State’s Attorney Robin S. Coffin said in the October 2019 letter that the force was “justified for the protection of lives.”

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Chief Melissa Hyatt praised police officers’ response in 2019, saying they acted “swiftly and courageously” when a man with a knife began stabbing shoppers and workers.

The federal suit, however, calls the actions of the two officers part of the agency’s pattern of “using excessively deadly force when confronted with individuals with mental health disabilities and those experiencing mental health crises.”

Baltimore County Police spokesman Trae Corbin said Wise and Brocato are both on full, active duty with the agency. He declined comment on the lawsuit. The federal court filing does not identify the officers by first name.

James Sweeting III, the attorney representing Taylor’s family, said Monday that Baltimore County law enforcement has policies and procedures in place for people in mental health crisis, but they “don’t seem to want to act” in accordance with them.

“We’re trying to force accountability and compel (police) to follow their own policies and procedures, so that deaths and injuries like this one won’t occur in the future,” Sweeting said.

Other instances of alleged excessive force the lawsuit mentions include the police shootings of Odatei Mills in 2009, Korryn Gaines in 2016 and Emmanuel Oates, Scott Robertson and Eric Sopp in 2019. Each shooting was fatal, except in the case of Mills.

This “pattern” by Baltimore County Police has continued because the agency has failed to properly discipline officers when they use excessive force, the lawsuit argued. That has served as a “communication to its officers that it condones such actions and has made such conduct substantially more likely to be repeated,” it said.

In the 2019 shooting, Taylor was demonstrating signs of mental distress when officers arrived on scene, the lawsuit argued. Police were familiar with him and would have known he suffered from mental illness, it said, and Wise and Brocato specifically were aware that earlier that day Taylor “was having a mental episode.”

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The suit alleges the officers didn’t try to communicate, deescalate or establish a rapport with Taylor, or request that officers with crisis intervention training come to the scene.

Rather than working toward a nonviolent resolution, the lawsuit said, Baltimore County Police officers Wise and Brocato unholstered their weapons, immediately trained them on Taylor and “commenced shooting before attempting any communication.”

Police said at the time that security guards had escorted Taylor from mall property on the September 2019 Saturday of the stabbings, but he returned that afternoon and was demanding money and brandishing a hunting knife.

Recordings of 911 calls previously released by the agency described a man in a black mask chasing people with a knife.

“My friend looked down and his arm was cut and he’s bleeding,” one caller said.

In Coffin’s letter declining criminal charges against the officers, she wrote that Taylor was “out of control and randomly stabbing people” at the mall. The officers who arrived “acted calmly to control the situation,” attempting to box him in and keep citizens from the roadway.

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Taylor, according to Coffin, ignored orders to drop a knife and acted “aggressively” toward officers. Wise and Brocato shot him, she said when they realized he wouldn’t drop it and that he “represented a grave risk to all of those around him.”

“Accordingly, this office will take no further action,” Coffin wrote.

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Police policies, cited in the lawsuit, require officers who encounter people in mental or emotional crisis to offer aid, seek medical attention, deescalate with communication and active listening, and request crisis intervention assistance.

But, according to the suit, the department has not trained the “majority” of its officers on the policy.

The county recently reached a $630,000 settlement with a 76-year-old woman thrown to the ground by police during an arrest in January 2020. It also paid out at least three settlements of more than $2 million since the start of 2021 following fatal shootings by Baltimore County Police: $2.5 million to the family of Spencer McCain, 41; $6.5 million to the family of Sopp; and $3 million to the estate of Gaines.

The federal suit from Taylor’s family further stated the Baltimore County 911 dispatcher did not alert the county’s crisis response team about the situation, and said the county doesn’t have a policy or training for dispatchers to request officers trained in crisis assistance or that team.

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The officers who were there, Sweeting said, endangered passersby and killed Taylor as he was walking backward away from them. Police previously said Taylor was killed as he walked toward occupied vehicles.

The county’s crisis response team should have been on scene, Sweeting said.

“It’s time that Baltimore County grew up,” Sweeting said.


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