2021 | Courts

Family of man who was fatally shot by Montgomery County officer waits for movement in lawsuit

Lawsuit filed a year ago argues that officer could have used de-escalation tactics

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U.S. District Court building in Greenbelt

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The family of a man fatally shot by a police officer in Silver Spring in 2018 sued Montgomery County more than a year ago, arguing that the officer could have de-escalated the situation, knowing that the man had a disability.

Since last summer, there has been no movement in the case.

Officer Anand Badgujar fatally shot 41-year-old Robert White in June 2018 following a confrontation in White’s neighborhood.

Badgujar has said he thought White was armed because he reached into his pocket. The officer also thought that White might be trying to intentionally provoke him in a “suicide-by-cop” scenario.

Irene Ross Thompson and Roddy Moss Thompson, White’s sister and brother, respectively, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court on May 21, 2020, against both Badgujar as an individual and Montgomery County government.

In the lawsuit, White’s siblings say their brother was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and learning disabilities when he was 16. The evaluation also found that White “probably did not possess skills sufficient to allow adequate function in [the] community.”

“Mr. White was an individual with a disability and suffered from mental impairments, including but not limited to cognitive impairments. He had a record of impairments such that they substantially limited one or more of his major life activities,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit says Badgujar “recognized Mr. White’s disability as an impairment to complying or understanding commands from a peace officer,” but did not de-escalate the situation. The plaintiffs argue that Badgujar could have:

  • Called the Montgomery County Crisis Intervention Unit
  • Waited for the situation to de-escalate
  • Created a “comfort zone” after recognizing White’s disability
  • Used “non-threatening communication” instead of pointing a firearm at White
  • Waited for backup to help de-escalate the situation

According to court records, the county and Badgujar filed a motion to dismiss the case on July 17, 2020, and the plaintiffs filed a counter-motion opposing the dismissal a month later.

District Judge Paul Grimm, who is handling the case, has not ruled on either motion and no hearings are currently scheduled, an employee in his office said on Tuesday.

Scott Peterson, a spokesman for the county, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat last week that the Office of the County Attorney is waiting on the court to rule on its motion to dismiss.

Allegations in lawsuit

The lawsuit also argues that Badgujar pointing his weapon at White and saying “I don’t want to shoot you” provoked White and caused him to push the officer away.

The lawsuit alleges that the county “knew or should have known that its officers and/or employees routinely violate the civil rights of the mentally disabled by refusing to provide the necessary public service and accommodation.”

“The Defendant condones such practices by failing to effectively train its law enforcement, or to modify its policies, regarding recognition of mental illness and handling situations involving the mentally ill,” it states.

White’s family argues that Badgujar and the county violated his constitutional rights by using excessive force and detaining him without cause.

In addition to the accusations of excessive force by Badgujar, the lawsuit alleges that the county violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to train the officer on how to properly accommodate White’s disability.

Additionally, the lawsuit includes wrongful death and survival claims. It requests a jury trial and a judgment against the county and Badgujar for damages, economic losses and attorney fees.

Video shows confrontation, shooting

White was walking through a neighborhood in the area of Three Oaks Drive and Melbourne Avenue on June 11, 2018, when Badgujar approached him and said, “Hey, big man, you need to stop,” according to body camera footage that the police department released.

Video shows Badgujar’ s weapon drawn in his left hand as White runs toward him in the street, saying “do it” to the officer. Badgujar then runs onto the lawn of a home and White walks away into the street. Badgujar was holding pepper spray in his right hand.

As the two are in the street, video shows White cursing at Badgujar, then swiping his arm at the officer.

As the confrontation moved to another part of the complex, Badgujar radioed for backup and said White had his hands in his pocket and that it “might be a suicide-by-cop-type thing.”

Later in the video, Badgujar told White, who was on the sidewalk, “Sir, I do not want to shoot you.”

Badgujar is seen getting closer to White as the officer briefly went to his squad car.

When Badgujar turned from the vehicle, White walked toward Badgujar and continued to say “do it” before charging at the officer. Badgujar then fired a shot at White, who fell over, then got back up. Badgujar then fired multiple shots at White, who fell to the ground.

White was taken to a hospital and died of his injuries.

Badgujar was placed on administrative leave following the shooting. He was later cleared of wrongdoing both by a department internal review and by the Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office. He returned to duty.

The department’s internal review found that Badgujar’s actions were justified because he thought White was armed when he reached into his pocket. It was later revealed that White had a folding knife, although he did not take it out during the encounter with the officer, The Washington Post reported.

Family wants better policing practices, attorney says

In the years since White’s death, multiple law enforcement officers have fatally shot people in Montgomery County. Of those, the only shooting that resulted in criminal charges against the shooter was the killing of two people in Takoma Park last month by an off-duty Pentagon officer.

Outside reviews have found other shootings by officers to be justified.

In the last three years, a focus on considering changes to policing in Montgomery County has grown.

Last year, the County Council passed a bill that limits officers’ use of force in several areas. (The county police union recently announced it is suing the county over the policy.)

Additionally, some residents and elected officials want the county to redirect funding and resources away from policing and toward social and mental health services.

Issa Al-Aweel, an attorney who represents White’s family, told Bethesda Beat in an interview last month that in addition to seeking justice for White, the family hopes the lawsuit will lead to more community policing and better public policy outcomes.

“My hope is for the county to be a safer place, and that’s essentially what we want. We’re focusing on what is best for the community. So, of course we want the justice part, but the family is also looking for a safer community in Montgomery County,” he said.

Al-Aweel said the case is being tried in federal court because it involves issues surrounding the U.S. Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is a federal law.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com