The family of James Meadows doesn’t know what set off the frightening breakdown of his final hours. The 45-year-old construction worker was suicidal and mumbling to God in the sky. Before police came, he bashed in his father’s locked cabinet and snatched two handguns.
“They are going to shoot you!” Joseph Meadows shouted to his armed son, according to a police report.
Three officers opened fire, killing Meadows that evening in May 2019 — a rare police shooting in the small Cecil County town of Rising Sun, Maryland. As the family’s lawyer investigates their actions, he says he’s made a troubling discovery about one of the cops.
Before veteran police officer Daniel Stickney Jr. took a job in Rising Sun, he faced three federal lawsuits in the Philadelphia suburbs. He was accused of trumping up charges against one man, wrongfully arresting another and twice searching an elderly women’s home without a warrant. All three cases were thrown out or settled.
On the six-man force in Rising Sun, Stickney received enough complaints that the county state’s attorney decided he had lost faith in the officer and would not call him to testify. But the courts had not found Stickney committed any wrongdoing. The chief stood by his officer, even as a petition started online to fire Dan Stickney.
“How can it be that for this particular officer nobody in the town, given all of these events, sought to rein him in? Or if that was not possible, take him out of the position that is supposed to be one of the most trusted in society?” asks Jeffrey Nusinov, the attorney for Meadows’ family.
Nusinov is digging into Stickney’s background and questioning the people and systems that kept him on the force. The lawyer’s findings have become part of a wrongful-death lawsuit he filed on behalf of the family against three officers and the town. They accuse the town of negligence and the officers of excessive force, arguing the cops were called to prevent a suicide but instead hastened a death.
It’s precisely the sort of 911 call that has confounded police departments across the country. Amid the national reckoning over police reform, advocates are calling for better ways to respond to people suffering mental health crises. Officers are trained to stop crime, not a psychological breakdown. And yet, some chiefs say the choices are limited when confronting an unstable man with a gun.
James Meadows’ family wants $15 million, more than the town budget. They are requesting a jury trial. The date has not been set.
“Rising Sun knew that one of its officers, Defendant Stickney, had a history of abusing his official powers and resorting to excessive force,” Nusinov wrote in the lawsuit. “It also knew that the Cecil County state’s attorney had taken official action to exclude Stickney from trials on the grounds that he could not be counted on to testify truthfully.”
A long-simmering conflict between former Cecil County State’s Attorney Edward “Ellis” Rollins III and Stickney escalated in late 2015, with the prosecutor blacklisting the officer. In court filings, Stickney fired back, accusing Rollins of harboring a vendetta.
Police Chief F.D. “Chip” Peterson Jr. came to the defense of his officer, telling the Cecil Whig newspaper that Stickney had done nothing wrong. The chief cited the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a 1970s measure intended to protect cops from false and exaggerated accusations. The law has come under scathing criticism amid debate over police reform. The controversy gripped the small town of fewer than 3,000 people.
Two miles from the Pennsylvania border and at the top of the Chesapeake Bay, Rising Sun traces its name to the signpost of a Colonial tavern on the road between Baltimore and Philadelphia.
Around town today, Stickney is known.
“He’s a no-tolerant, no-bull-crap person. He was on the DEA; he does not like drugs. And these are the people who are coming at him maliciously: drug addicts or criminals,” says Barbara Roil, stepsister of James Meadows.
Roil described a confrontational relationship with her stepbrother. They had not spoken for years before his death. In the days afterward, she came to befriend Stickney. She called a reporter on the officer’s behalf.
“I’m very grateful for what happened,” she said. “If they [police] would not have been there, there would have been four or five of them dead.”
In Rising Sun, plenty of people have a story about encountering Stickney, said Jackie Meadows, the ex-wife of James Meadows.
“He pulled me over, probably four years ago at the Sunoco, and he was like instantly right up in my face and yelling at me, and he reached inside my car and took my keys,” she said. “He’s just a bully.”
Stickney declined to answer questions for this article. Town officials aren’t talking either.
The Rising Sun police chief declined to be interviewed. So did Stickney’s lawyer and Mayor Travis Marion. Commissioner Augie Pierson, who’s listed as responsible for public safety, didn’t return messages.
“James Meadows’ death resulted from a system that habitually looks the other way when police officers abuse their enormous powers,” said Nusinov, the family attorney.
Meadows’ family sued Stickney and two other Rising Sun officers who opened fire: Stephen McKinney and Steffon Josey-Davis. In May 2019, Josey-Davis was just three months on the job. He says he was fired without cause after they killed Meadows. Josey-Davis, who is Black, filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging harassment and discrimination.
Josey-Davis says he has no doubt that they were all justified in shooting Meadows. Still, he says, Stickney and McKinney are hard-charging guys for small-town police work.
“These guys are more [fit] for the aggressive areas like Chicago or Baltimore City where you need officers who are in the mix,” said Josey-Davis, who no longer works as a cop. “I’m glad the Meadows family is doing this. ... I shot once and was fired; the other two officers shot multiple times and remain employed.”
Nusinov cites three federal lawsuits against Stickney during the officer’s time in the suburbs of Philadelphia. These lawsuits span from 2001 to 2009 and include one man who accused Stickney of arresting him on trumped-up charges of public drunkenness, another who claimed he was beaten by some other cops for outing Stickney as an undercover officer, and a woman who accused Stickney of causing “a complete mess” while searching her house illegally. Not one of the cases reached trial.
The City of Philadelphia paid the woman $5,000 to resolve her claims, a city spokeswoman said. Stickney has said he worked as a corrections officer, cop and investigator in Philadelphia before transferring to Rising Sun in 2009.
In Maryland, police chiefs are responsible for vetting new hires. They submit all candidates for certification with a state authority. The system places responsibility on chiefs to conduct a thorough background check on a prospective officer.
“Just because somebody’s sued and just because there’s a settlement doesn’t mean they did anything wrong. ... It should be part of a background investigation and not just a presumption that he’s a bad actor,” said Karen Kruger, a former executive director of the Maryland Police & Correctional Training Commission.
In Rising Sun, Stickney was sued in 2010 by a woman who accused him of forcing his way into her home and arresting her. The arrest happened after a pregnant Heather Miller and James Lucas-Pratt refused to answer questions about a car accident outside and demanded a state trooper leave their property, according to their lawsuit. Stickney responded to the scene.
“James Meadows’ death resulted from a system that habitually looks the other way when police officers abuse their enormous powers.”— Attorney Jeffrey Nusinov
“Stickney grabbed plaintiff Miller and threw her to the ground and arrested her and dragged her out of the house,” the couple alleged.
They wanted $1 million. State Police settled their claims for $35,000, a department spokesman said. The town of Rising Sun took the case to trial and won, said Calvin Bonenberger, the town administrator.
Soon tensions grew between Stickney and Rollins, the state’s attorney. In March 2012, Rollins filed criminal charges of misconduct in office and assault against Stickney. He accused the officer of excessive force for allegedly slamming a teenage girl’s head into the hood of a patrol car. Stickney had arrested her on suspicion of shoplifting from a grocery store.
A Cecil County jury deliberated about 14 minutes before finding the officer not guilty.
Rollins charged the police officer a year and a half later with perjury and misconduct in office, accusing Stickney of falsely claiming he had conducted surveillance to justify a drug arrest. The case was transferred to Queen Anne’s County to avoid a conflict.
Queen Anne’s County State’s Attorney Lance Richardson said he found discrepancies in the statements of a key witness and didn’t think he could win at trial. He dropped the charges.
Stickney, meanwhile, sued the town of Rising Sun to cover his legal bills. He claimed Rollins was out to get him. Rollins wrote the police chief to say that any case involving Stickney would suffer because prosecutors would not call him to testify.
Rollins himself was caught in controversy six months later and resigned after being accused of exposing himself at the glass doors of an Ocean City hotel balcony.
The current Cecil County state’s attorney, James Dellmyer, rescinded the office policy to blacklist Stickney. His office also cleared Stickney, McKinney and Josey-Davis of killing James Meadows, deeming their actions justified.
Dellmyer declined to comment for this article.
In the lawsuit, Nusinov describes James Meadows’ mental breakdown in May 2019. The construction worker suffered financial troubles, chronic pain and, possibly, abuse of painkillers or recreational drugs, the suit says. He was tormented by a failed relationship with an old girlfriend and spoke of hearing voices.
On May 13, he showed up at his father’s house in a wild state. He hadn’t been there in more than a year. Now, he wanted a gun.
“In his distraught state of mind, James desperately needed the assistance of police officers who knew how to exercise restraint and how to interact with an emotionally unstable person,” Nusinov wrote in the lawsuit. “Instead, Rising Sun sent a firing squad.”
By the time officers arrived, James Meadows had broken into the gun cabinet and fended off his father’s attempts to take back the firearms. His stepmother had called 911. Joseph had punched his son hard, but he couldn’t stop him. State troopers took position around the sunroom. Stickney would tell investigators that James pointed a gun at the town’s police officers from a kitchen window as they walked up.
Stickney’s body camera showed Joseph and James facing each other inside the glass doors of the sunroom. James held the gun, barrel pointed to the floor.
“Let me see your hands! Let me see your hands! Show me your hands!” Stickney and McKinney shouted, approaching with their guns drawn. “Show me your hands right now! Hands! ... Hands!”
Joseph Meadows gestured at the officers. Nusinov says that meant for them to stay back while Joseph tried to calm his son.
As the cops stepped closer, James Meadows moved his upper body, as if turning. The officers opened fire.
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“As he was turning, he was raising the gun. I don’t know if he was turning to engage the person who was directly in front of him or us,” Stickney would tell investigators. “I wasn’t going to give him the chance to hurt him or us.”
The officers fired at least 19 shots, Nusinov says, blasting through the sliding glass door. Bullets shattered the glass and caused troopers to take cover on the other side of the sunroom. The Rising Sun officers started shooting about a minute after their first commands.
In a state police report, Stickney said he saw James Meadows raise the gun and that’s when he decided to shoot. Stickney told them he couldn’t remember whether Meadows pointed the gun at his father or the officers.
Nusinov says the body camera video contradicts this account. The footage he provided The Sun does not show James Meadows pointing the gun at anyone.
Afterward, police rolled Meadows’ limp body and handcuffed him. An officer can be heard saying, “M----- f----- got blood all over.” Nusinov accuses them of delaying medical care. A doctor would determine that a bullet through the lung likely killed him.
James Meadows was shot six times. He died on the floor of his father’s sunroom.
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.