The simmering debate over the 2016 shooting of Keith Lamont Scott rekindled Wednesday with Scott’s family claiming in a lawsuit that his death resulted from negligence, excessive force and the failure of Charlotte-Mecklenburg police to avoid a needless confrontation.
The complaint filed by Scott’s widow, Rakeyia Scott, comes almost two years after her husband’s death on Sept. 20, 2016. It names the City of Charlotte, police and CMPD Officer Brentley Vinson, who fired the fatal shots, as defendants.
Scott’s killing set off two days of unprecedented demonstrations and violence across the city, which was broadcast around the world. Then-Gov. Pat McCrory eventually declared a state of emergency.
The Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office later cleared Vinson and the other responding officers of any wrongdoing, saying Scott was armed and ignored at least 10 police commands to drop his semi-automatic pistol before Vinson opened fire.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
“I’m extremely convinced that Mr. Vinson’s use of deadly force was lawful,” then-District Attorney Andrew Murray said two months after the shooting.
Rakeyia Scott, however, maintains in the lawsuit that her impaired, 43-year-old husband did not have to die. She is seeking damages for wrongful death, gross negligence, and assault and battery.
Her complaint details what she and her attorney describe as the unnecessary police steps that brought the fatal confrontation to pass, and it singles out Vinson’s actions as “willful, wanton and/or reckless.”
“(Vinson) aimed his semi-automatic pistol at Keith Lamont Scott and deliberately fired shots into his body despite the complete lack of objective evidence that Scott posed any threat whatsoever to any of the CMPD personnel on the scene, and without even knowing the identity of the man he was about to kill,” the suit says.
Chuck Monnett, the family’s attorney and a frequent critic of CMPD’s use of deadly force, said the officers outside of Keith Scott’s apartment “escalated the situation to the point where it did not end peacefully.”
“The guy’s wife is right there. Why not say, OK ma’am, could you get him to drop the gun and come out of the car with his hands up?’ Why not try that?” Monnett said. “There was no need for a man to die over possession of marijuana.”
Jordan Ashley-Walker, public affairs manager for the City of Charlotte, said Wednesday that the family’s lawsuit was expected. “We will respond to the allegations through the judicial process,” she said.
Scott, the father of seven, was a former shopping mall security officer and the son of a police detective. He suffered from a traumatic brain injury sustained during a motorcycle crash in South Carolina in November 2015 for which he took medication.
Scott was also a convicted felon who had been sentenced to seven years in prison in Texas for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
On the afternoon of the shooting, police were at The Village at College Downs apartment complex near UNC Charlotte to serve a warrant on an unrelated case when a white SUV driven by Scott pulled in beside an undercover police vehicle, evidence in the case reveals.
Officers say they saw Scott, who lived at the complex, appearing to roll a marijuana cigarette, which they decided to ignore. But they say they then saw Scott exit the SUV holding a gun, according to Murray’s report.
According to the lawsuit, police failed to take time to assess the risk Scott actually posed, consider a less confrontational response or confer with Rakeyia Scott, who had walked up to the scene.
Instead, they attempted what the complaint describes as a “risky” vehicle takedown, a maneuver that involved the officers quickly surrounding Scott’s SUV with their own vehicles then encircling Scott with their guns drawn, the lawsuit says.
“The decision to perform the vehicle takedown needlessly escalates ... a routine arrest to a situation that is now unpredictable and which significantly increases the risk of injury or death to both the suspect and the officers involved,” the lawsuit say.
When Scott initially refused to leave his vehicle, one of the officers used his baton in an attempt to break out a passenger-side window.
Vinson, who has been on the force for two years and never taken part in a vehicle takedown, was ordered to stay in his vehicle, the lawsuit says. But when he heard another officer yell, “gun, passenger seat,” he left his car and took cover behind a nearby building, the lawsuit says.
Rakeyia Scott, according to the lawsuit, told officers that Scott was unarmed and has a brain injury, the lawsuit says. “He’s not going to do anything to you guys. He just took his medicine.”
When Scott exited the SUV, investigators say he was indeed holding a gun. But the lawsuit says he never “makes any threatening or aggressive movement toward any of the officers” before slowly backing away from the SUV.
Vinson’s bullets hit him in his wrist, abdomen and back, severing his spinal cord. The least experienced officer on the scene was the only one to use his weapon, the lawsuit says.
Police have the legal right to use deadly force if they have a reasonable fear of death or serious injuries to themselves, fellow officers or the general public.
Murray and a group of police experts contacted by the Observer at the time of the release of the district attorney’s findings all said Vinson’s actions met the legal standard.
The Scott family’s lawsuit argues otherwise.
Keith Scott, it maintains, “never engages in any conduct sufficient to cause a reasonable person or law enforcement officer to develop an objectively reasonable belief that he poses a threat of imminent physical harm.”
Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095; @MikeGordonOBS