Matthew Zadok Williams' family files lawsuit over fatal shooting by DeKalb officer

Matthew Zadok Williams with his family. (Hahnah Williams)

The family of a man who was fatally shot by a Georgia police officer filed a lawsuit under federal disability discrimination laws, saying he was having a mental health crisis and officers weren’t adequately trained to respond.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Atlanta, the family of Matthew Zadok Williams alleges “disability discrimination” and says DeKalb County had a “policy of failing to adequately train police officers to safely arrest persons with mental illness.” A county police officer shot and killed Williams on April 12, 2021, in the townhome community where he lived.

The lawsuit, filed Friday by Williams’ mother and sister, cites the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. A county spokesperson declined to comment on pending litigation.

“DeKalb County has known for years that it is putting officers and citizens at risk by failing to provide proper training and support for custodial arrests of persons in mental crisis,” Leighton Moore, a lawyer for Williams’ family, said in a news release. “This lawsuit will hold the County responsible for its obligations, and hopefully make change.”

DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston in June declined to pursue criminal charges in the shooting, saying that she found the officers’ use of force to be justified. Williams’ family opposed that decision.

DeKalb County police officers encountered Williams when a woman called 911 to report that “a homeless person in an altered state” had been lying in the woods and then was walking aimlessly around the community. She called back a second time to say that when she startled him, the man pulled out a knife and then immediately tried to hide it before walking away.

The lawsuit says the facts relayed by that woman “put DeKalb County and its officers on notice that Zadok was in mental crisis.” And one of the officers who responded had previously gone to that address about four weeks earlier for a previous mental health incident involving Williams, the suit says.

Williams was locked outside of his townhome and had rubber gloves, a bucket and a plumber’s knife. When officers arrived, they tried to engage him but he didn’t respond. Williams ran toward one of the officers with the knife but then ran away when the officer stumbled, the suit says.

Williams got into his home by breaking a window. Officers ended up kicking open the door several times, with Williams reaching out to close it each time, the lawsuit says. At one point, when Williams reached to close the door, an officer fired three shots as it was closing, the lawsuit says. Williams was shot and the officers did not immediately provide medical aid, allowing him to bleed to death, the lawsuit says.

The officers failed to follow the county policy for a “barricaded person,” which would have involved calling SWAT and a trained negotiator, and failed to render aid once he’d been shot, the lawsuit says.

DeKalb County officials have known for years that officers weren’t receiving adequate training and resources to recognize and deescalate mental health crises, the lawsuit says. As a result, it says, people with mental illness, “were exposed to a heightened risk of injury or death relative to other arrestees, by reason of their disability.”

The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory damages, as well as legal fees and costs, and asks for a jury trial.