‘Go ahead and shoot me,’ he told police. Was his killing justified?

‘Go ahead and shoot me,’ he told police. Was his killing justified?
There was a struggle on the front porch on the night in 2013 Spencer Mims III was fatally shot by police. (Credit: Davie Hinshaw | The Charlotte Observer)
There was a struggle on the front porch on the night in 2013 Spencer Mims III was fatally shot by police. (Credit: Davie Hinshaw | The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Fred Clasen-Kelly/The Charlotte Observer) - "Go ahead and shoot me," Spencer Mims III told police while he stood on his front porch holding a box-cutter to his own neck. "I've been putting up with this for 40 years and I'm tired."

Less than nine minutes later, police shot him to death.

On Monday, a civil trial begins in the wrongful-death lawsuit that Mims' family filed against the city of Charlotte.

The suit alleges the use of deadly force against a person having a mental breakdown was excessive and unnecessary. It contends that Mims, a 55-year-old man with a history of mental illness, never threatened officers. Also, that an autopsy shows Mims was turning away from the officer as the shots were fired.

Then Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray cleared CMPD Officer Jeremy Donaldson, who fired the shots, and Officer Michael Whitlock of criminal wrongdoing. Murray said Mims ignored repeated commands to drop the box-cutter and lunged at Donaldson before the shooting.

The family's attorney, Luke Largess, refused comment. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department also refused an interview request, saying public comment would be inappropriate with the trial approaching.

In previous written statements from December 2016, CMPD spokesman Rob Tufano told the Observer that CMPD did not discipline Donaldson or Whitlock.

"The City and the officer(s) involved have denied the allegations that they used any improper tactics in responding to the call that night," Tufano said.

Court filings show CMPD likely will face questions raised in other recent police shootings — about how quickly officers resort to using lethal force against mentally ill people and whether Tasers, which are supposed to provide an alternative to guns, are escalating incidents that could have been handled without violence.

CMPD says it has taken steps in recent years to improve training and officer readiness to deal with the mentally ill. More than a third of its officers have gone through Crisis Intervention Training to learn best practices for defusing confrontations, exceeding the recommended number of 20 to 25 percent, the department said. Also, CMPD now sends shift supervisors to accompany patrol officers when someone calls for help about a suicide threat or attempted suicide — often considered among the most high risk for law enforcement.

Critics say the department needs to do better. Victims' families, advocates for mentally ill people and civil rights activists have complained about CMPD tactics.

"We have to come up with a better way of dealing with mentally ill people besides killing them," said Charles Monnett, a Charlotte attorney and longtime advocate for victims of traumatic brain injuries.

'Do what you gotta do'

Despite suffering from severe depression and anxiety disorder, Mims had built a stable life. He had a college degree from the University of North Carolina, worked for the same company for more than 25 years and helped care for his dad at the Madison Park home they shared.

Each night before going to bed, Spencer Mims Jr. said his son would come into his room, kiss him on the forehead and tell him he loved him, according to deposition in the lawsuit.

But on the night of Jan. 6, 2013, Mims became uncharacteristically angry as he watched Washington, his favorite team, blow a 14-0 lead and lose to Seattle in the NFL playoffs. He threw a pizza box, slammed a door and cursed his father - something that he'd never done before, Mims Jr. said in a deposition.

Mims Jr., 87, who taught orchestra classes at Myers Park High School for 34 years, left the house hoping his son would cool off. While driving around, he saw an unidentified police officer and asked them for help. The officer told Mims Jr. he would call someone who would meet him at his home.

Court documents show the standoff with officers was brief. Here's what happened, according to police reports and deposition testimony.

Police arrived around 11 p.m. to the house on Cooper Drive near South Boulevard. Mims Jr. asked them to help him get some clothes so he could leave the house for the evening and give his son room to calm down.

After talking briefly to the father, Officer Jeremy Donaldson walked to the small porch, where Mims was sitting with his back against the house. Donaldson told him to drop the box-cutter, which he was holding against his neck.

A second officer, Michael Whitlock, called a sergeant from the scene to tell him he planned to use a Taser to subdue Mims. The sergeant responded to Whitlock: "Do what you gotta do," according to a police report.

Whitlock fired the Taser as Donaldson moved toward Mims, ready to handcuff him after the Taser hit. But one barb hit Mims in the right elbow and the other struck the house, rendering the Taser shot ineffective, according to depositions.

Mims howled in pain and raised his right arm.

"All he did was turn towards me with the knife in his right hand," Donaldson told CMPD investigators. "So I backed up... I said 'Drop the knife or I'll f-----g kill you.' And by this time I was almost on the other side of the porch that was closed off. So there was nowhere to go. I fired two rounds. He continued to come towards me. I fired one more round."

Donaldson told investigators he feared his life was in danger.

"I mean he would have at least tried to stab me with his knife or cut me in, in the face area," he said. "Cause if he would have hit me in my artery in my neck.... or you know underneath my arm.. I could have bled out in a manner of minutes."

Police departments across the nation, including CMPD, train officers who face potentially dangerous encounters with mentally disabled people to, when possible, keep a safe distance, speak slowly and calmly and buy time to gain the person's cooperation without the use of force. Some law enforcement experts recommend officers avoid over-reliance on weapons, including Tasers.

Mel Tucker, a former N.C. police chief, FBI agent and retired trainer on the use of force, testified in a deposition as an expert for Mims' family: "Officers Donaldson and Whitlock dealt with Spencer Mims III as if he were a suspect in a crime which escalated the situation unnecessarily and resulted in Mims' death."

Confronting mental illness

Families frequently call police when loved ones with mental problems behave erratically. In the U.S., mental health advocates estimate nearly a quarter of the people who die in police interactions or in police custody were going through a mental health crisis.

When Mims Jr. met Donaldson in the driveway to tell him about his son, he told the officer about an incident in 2011 in which his son called authorities for help and was hospitalized for 11 days for mental health treatment. Police took two guns from the home and never returned them.

Donaldson had been on the job less than 18 months and at the time of the shooting had not gone through Crisis Intervention Training that teaches officers to recognize signs of mental illness and how to de-escalate encounters, according to court filings and deposition testimony.

Whitlock, the officer on the scene who tased Mims, had worked for CMPD for more than 25 years when the shooting happened. He had been through crisis training but said it was his first experience dealing with someone who was armed and threatening suicide. Whitlock is now retired from the department.

Asked about the officers' readiness to deal with a mentally ill subject, Tufano, the department spokesman, said in December 2016 some mental health calls CMPD receives fall outside the scope of CIT training. That includes situations with armed suicide attempts, barricaded gunman and hostage situations, he said.

CMPD Chief Kerr Putney has publicly acknowledged his department's need to improve training in dealing with mentally ill people. In response, officials have introduced an eight-hour training course so more officers will have at least basic knowledge, Putney has said. CIT training is typically 40 hours — meaning officers would be unavailable for duty for a full work week — making it difficult to put all officers through the classes, officials have said.

The law gives officers broad discretion to decide when deadly force is necessary. Officers are authorized to use lethal force when they believe it is reasonable and necessary to stop someone who poses an imminent threat of death or serious injury to the officer or others.

Active or passive?

Tasers are supposed to provide police with an alternative to lethal force.

In an interview last year, CMPD Capt. Mike Campagna said the department has used the devices responsibly.

"There is never just one option," Campagna said. "We haven't seen a trend of officers jumping to the Taser when it is not a viable option based on the circumstances. They are a great tool and a great way to get violent subjects under control with a minimal risk of injury."

In the Mims case, his family alleges that he did not threaten officers and grew increasingly agitated after he noticed that Whitlock had moved into position near the house, where he deployed the Taser.

CMPD rules allow officers to use Tasers to avoid injury to themselves or others when faced with "active aggression," considered a relatively restrictive policy.

But Mims' lawsuit says that Whitlock deployed his Taser when Mims had only shown "passive resistance," which requires officers to use a lower level of force.

Tufano said in 2016 that department policy allows officers to deploy Tasers when people have "immediate and reasonable means to commit suicide."

During an interview with investigators, Whitlock explained his use of the Taser: "He had already proven that he wasn't gonna drop it..in my mind, he obviously had some mental issues or something. I felt the need that if I didn't hit him with the Taser that.... he was gonna be standing there an indefinite amount of time and...and he might even actually cut himself."

A father's grief

Mims Jr. was interviewed by police in the hours after witnessing his son's shooting but before he knew his son had died, according to police reports.

He told them he assumed his son must have lunged at an officer during the confrontation.

"I know police don't shoot people... unless they have to," Mims Jr. said, according to a police report. "Listen, my father was a police officer. ...I was taught that they don't shoot people unless it's absolutely (necessary)."

But three years later, in a 2016 deposition hearing, Mims Jr. said after learning more about the case that he was too quick to give the officers the benefit of the doubt.

"The police are there to protect us and not harm us," Mims Jr. testified. "That's always been my philosophy, my feeling. And in this case, they didn't. They didn't come through."