Baltimore County paid $2.5 million to the surviving family of Spencer McCain, a man killed in 2015 by police in Owings Mills, county officials confirmed this week.
The settlement, reached in September, followed a series of court filings in which attorneys for McCain’s family argued that police knew McCain was diagnosed with a mental illness and still fired 18 shots at him “immediately” upon entering the residence, without attempts to de-escalate the situation.
An amended lawsuit alleges that one officer shot the 41-year-old McCain as he lay wounded on the ground, after the initial volley of gunfire, as he was raising his arms to be handcuffed.
McCain was unarmed at the time, according to his family’s attorney and the police.
The financial settlement, which has not been previously reported, marks at least the third settlement of more than $2 million paid by county officials last year following fatal shootings by Baltimore County Police.
Sean Naron, a spokesman for Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewki Jr., confirmed the payment, adding that “the county considers this inherited matter settled.”
Anton Iamele, who represented McCain’s estate, his mother and the mother of his surviving children, said the settlement offered the family some closure and validation after a “devastating” event.
Baltimore County Police previously said officers responded June 25, 2015, to the 3000 block of Hunting Ridge Drive for a report of a possible domestic disturbance at a home they’d visited more than a dozen times in the three years prior. A domestic violence order barred McCain from being at the residence.
Officials said at the time that officers forced their way into the home when they heard screams for help and said officers believed McCain was armed because he was in a “defensive position.”
An internal department review of the shooting determined the officers’ actions “were found not to violate department policy,” police spokeswoman Joy Stewart said.
A review conducted by the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office found the shooting was justified, based on “the information the officers had prior to entry and the suspect’s actions upon entry,” according to an Aug. 7, 2015, letter obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
In the letter, Deputy State’s Attorney Robin Coffin wrote that no further action would be taken by her office. It provided no additional details on prosecutors’ analysis or the police investigation.
As a result, the three officers who fired their weapons — Shenell Wilkes, Shannon Stargel and Jonathan Besaw — did not face any charges. Stargel and Besaw are still with the department, while Wilkes was terminated in November 2020 for an “administrative incident” the year prior, unrelated to the shooting, according to Stewart.
Attorneys for McCain’s family argued in a federal civil suit that officers forced their way into the home with guns drawn, despite being equipped with less lethal weapons, and made no effort to de-escalate the situation.
When officers opened fire, McCain was standing in the living room, far enough away that he didn’t pose a threat to the officers’ safety, was not engaged in criminal activity and had not made any threatening gestures, Iamele said in the legal filings.
Officers notified dispatchers of shots fired and a possibly wounded officer — who ended up not being wounded — 26 seconds after officers said they were entering the apartment, according to the lawsuit.
“It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback ... but there was no effort at any kind of communication before they went in. And then it does not appear that there was any real effort at communication once they did go in,” Iamele said. “They were trained to make some effort at de-escalation, and I think in this particular circumstance, those efforts would’ve been fruitful.”
Iamele said the department’s Mobile Crisis Team had responded to incidents involving McCain on at least two earlier occasions.
After the initial gunfire, one officer, Wilkes, shot McCain again as he was visibly injured and “neither threatening nor resisting” police, Iamele wrote in federal court filings. McCain suffered six gunshot wounds in total, according to Iamele.
The attorney said in an interview that he identified the timing of the later shot based on police interviews of witnesses at the scene, and called it “inexplicable.” An amended lawsuit describes a fourth police officer who arrived and heard the shot from the back bedroom of the house, after the initial gunfire had occurred, who called out, “What was that?”
County police were not outfitted with body-worn cameras in 2015. The department began distributing the cameras to officers in July 2016.
The lawsuit goes on to list five other incidents since 2009 in which McCain’s family’s legal team claims county police used deadly force against people “suffering from emotional crises,” arguing that McCain’s death was part of a practice of “quickly directing lethal force at emotionally disturbed individuals.”
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Baltimore County officials settled at least two additional lawsuits in 2021 connected to fatal police shootings: $6.5 million to the family of Eric Sopp, who was killed in 2019 after his mother called police for help, reporting her son had been drinking and was suicidal, and $3 million to the estate of Korryn Gaines, a woman killed during a 2016 police standoff in Randallstown.
Naron, Olszewski’s spokesman, said in an emailed statement that the “unfortunate incident” that led to McCain’s killing reinforces the importance of expanding county emergency crisis response programs. That includes, he said, an expansion of the police department’s mobile crisis teams, as well as the creation of a “9-1-1 Call Center Clinician Program” to “assess and divert residents from criminal justice services to more appropriate behavioral health resources.”
“We will continue to explore every opportunity to promote additional interventions to support residents experiencing behavioral health crises,” Naron said.
In 2015, the leader of the Baltimore County branch of the NAACP said the group would monitor the police investigation into McCain’s killing, with the then-president saying 19 shell casings sounded like “a lot of shots for such close quarters and other people being there.”
Roland Patterson, a committee chair for the Baltimore County chapter, said this week, after reviewing the amended complaint from the federal lawsuit, that it appeared there was unreasonable use of force and called it a “disservice” not to call appropriate mental health experts or clinicians to the scene.
“Many of these cases are dismissed from the public consciousness because the state’s attorney says no crime was committed,” Patterson said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Taylor DeVille contributed to this article.