Family of disabled man killed by police files historic ADA lawsuit
Matthew Zadok Williams, 35 years old, was experiencing a mental health breakdown April 12, 2021, at his home of five years in Decatur, just east of Atlanta. The police were called to investigate a “homeless-looking person with a knife,” walking around in a wooded yard.
The 911 caller suspected “the stranger was going to break into someone’s house.”
DeKalb County police confronted Williams on his own property, where he allegedly brandished the weapon and then ran and barricaded himself in his home.
Just three weeks earlier, on March 16, 2021, Williams had called 911 requesting an ambulance to take him for health services. DeKalb officers arrived and decided not to call an ambulance, dismissing his mental condition. They also failed to report the incident, which would have established a record for the fatal interaction with police.
As it happened, one of the officers who came on April 12 had been on the March call. He not only knew that Williams owned his home and was not trespassing or attempting to break in, he was heard on his body camera commenting that “the man has mental health issues.”
Nevertheless, the police video shows at least three officers with their guns out and one with a drawn taser at Williams’ front door, yelling that he should come out. They then bust the door through, and Williams, hiding behind a piece of furniture, is shot at least twice.
The police closed the door and withdrew to wait for a SWAT team. Then 90 minutes passed before one arrived, and when this crisis squad entered, Williams was found dead, having bled out from his wounds.
Since then, his family has been determined to win justice for their son and brother. With the assistance of a large number of young community activists, they have held weekly protests in front of the DeKalb County Courthouse and on the corners of busy intersections throughout the county.
Denied indictments by the DeKalb County District Attorney, who in 2022 found the shooting “justifiable”; on Feb. 17, the family’s lawyers filed a civil lawsuit in Federal Court charging the county with violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, under Section 1983.
People with disabilities are 50% of police victims
Despite mountains of evidence that people with disabilities are disproportionately killed or injured by police, including a 2016 report by Ruderman Family Foundation that 50% of people killed by police nationally have a disability, the suit claims DeKalb County delayed provision or minimally provided their police force with competent, de-escalation training. Even more damning was their failure to create a full-time, fully staffed physical and mental health unit to respond to issues impacting people with disabilities.
Williams was not the first person experiencing a mental health crisis to be murdered by DeKalb County police. Anthony Hill, a young Afghanistan War veteran who suffered from PTSD, was observed wandering naked in the parking lot of his apartment complex on March 9, 2015. Known as a friendly and kind person, his neighbors called 911 to get him help. Instead as he walked toward DeKalb Officer Robert Olsen, the clearly unarmed Black man was shot and killed.
After four years of protest by outraged youth and legal proceedings by Hill’s family, Olsen was tried for murder and convicted of lesser charges in 2019. In response, DeKalb set up a two-person, part-time mental health crisis team to serve the entire county. However, this crisis team — unavailable for considerable parts of the day — is often disregarded by on-duty police.
The Williams family’s “historic” lawsuit challenges the notion that the ADA has limited application for building accessibility or parking spaces or job accommodations in the struggle for equity. Rather it says governmental agencies, especially police forces, are required to provide full protections and respectful treatment of people with physical and mental disabilities.
Under capitalism, the police will always be agents of the bosses, landlords and bankers, but the mass movement can curb some of the egregious, bigoted and violent practices. The family of Matthew Zadok Williams inspires solidarity for their unrelenting insistence that his Black life mattered.