BALTIMORE -- 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."