By: Robert King & Jill Disis, Indy Star: September 11th, 2015
Back in January, Indianapolis police said Donte Sowell, wanted on an outstanding warrant, fled from a traffic stop and – when confronted by an officer – opened fire, peppering patrol cars with bullets and shooting a cop in the foot before police shot and killed him.
On Thursday, the department emphatically reaffirmed that account in the face of a scathing lawsuit filed by Sowell’s family that insists he was shot without justification.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court, alleges that Sowell had no gun and that he died after being shot in the back. The family, through its attorneys, also expressed frustration with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, whom they said had failed to answer their questions about the case.
“He had done nothing to justify the use of deadly force,” said Ruth Z. Brown, an attorney with the Chicago-based Loevy & Loevy law firm, which is representing the family. “Multiple witnesses confirm that he was unarmed and that he had surrendered to police and that they kept shooting at him until they killed him.”
The attorneys produced an autopsy report Thursday from the Marion County Coroner’s Office that said Sowell, 27, was shot six times — and at least four of the shots were from behind. The coroner’s report said Sowell was shot twice in the back, including the fatal wound. The other shots were to the back of his right arm, the back of his right leg, the right upper arm and a graze wound on the top of the shoulder, the direction of which couldn’t be determined.
The suit, filed by Sowell’s fiancee, Rachel Long, names several defendants, including IMPD, the city of Indianapolis and officers at the scene.
Initially, IMPD said Thursday it could not comment on pending litigation. But by nightfall, the department issued an uncharacteristically detailed statement rebutting the lawsuit’s claims. Contrary to the allegations, IMPD Chief Rick Hite said in the statement, a stolen handgun was recovered from Sowell at the scene and lab tests showed the gun had fired at least 13 shots at police.
“The facts in this case will clearly show that the officers’ use of force was reasonable to prevent death or serious bodily injury to themselves and others, and the city of Indianapolis plans to aggressively defend this baseless lawsuit,” Hite said.
Amanda Dinges, the chief litigation counsel for the city of Indianapolis, said: “We deny all allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint.”
The suit claims that Sowell’s case is indicative of broader problems within the police department — inadequate training about the use of force, “significantly flawed” investigations of officer-involved shootings and purposeful withholding of information from the public that makes it difficult to hold police accountable.
“The idea that we should simply accept, without question and without evidence, the claims by the police department about what happened is not the way things work in a democracy and the family is not going to allow that to happen,” said Matthew Topic, another attorney from Loevy & Loevy. “So we will be fighting for transparency into what actually happened here so that the press and the public can understand what is happening in the Indianapolis police department.”
Loevy & Loevy has won several hefty jury verdicts, including one for $28 million that the firm’s website says is the largest police brutality verdict in Chicago history.
When the shooting occurred Jan. 15, Sowell was wanted for violating his probation on a felony marijuana possession case. He left the Amber Woods public housing community in a car with his brother. Within a few blocks, police made a traffic stop at a gas station on the corner of East 38th Street and Mitthoeffer Road.
Sowell, a passenger in the car, fled on foot. An officer radioed in his description and another officer coming to the scene found him near an entrance to Amber Woods. Family attorneys said he was just a few steps from the door of his mother’s apartment.
There are two distinctly different narratives of what happened next.
Hite said Sowell fired at officer Javed Richards — unprovoked — and that he fired 13 shots in all, including some that hit an IndyGo bus, narrowly missing a mother, an infant and the driver of the bus. Police were taking cover by the bus.
Still unclear is who fired the shot that killed Sowell — one of the IMPD officers or a security guard at the apartment complex who also opened fire.
Hite’s statement sharply contradicts what attorneys for Sowell’s family say they have uncovered: That six witnesses — whom they declined to identify — saw an unarmed Sowell try to surrender before officers and the guard fired on him. The property owner, the security company and the guard are also named in the suit.
IMPD said Thursday there was no body camera footage of the incident. But in the investigation of the shooting, police recovered 60 spent bullet casings from the scene and at least one police car was riddled with bullets. Richards, the officer who was shot in the foot, required hospital treatment before being released the next day.
Sowell was legally prohibited from having a gun because of prior criminal convictions, which included possession of cocaine and conspiracy to commit robbery. He died hours after the incident at Eskenazi Hospital. His family contends the police failed to offer medical aid before an ambulance arrived.
Hours after the lawsuit was filed in federal court, Long, who is the mother of two of Sowell’s four children, appeared with her attorneys and family members to discuss the case. They gathered in front of Long’s Ministries Church of God in Christ, her mother’s Eastside storefront church.
The attorneys outline the claims against he police department to affirmations of support from the church members and friends packed into the pews in the tiny church .Their strongest response came when Topic said IMPD shoots more civilians than cities with much bigger populations – a claim difficult to verify due to the lack of uniform record-keeping in police departments around the country.
While the attorneys spoke, Long held one of Sowell’s children, 1-year-old Donika, in her lap. A few feet away in a church pew, another woman held Donnea Long, the daughter of Sowell that Long gave birth to just three weeks ago.
Long said Sowell was a loving father who had plans for both her and their children. Just before his death, she said, he had returned to church and to weekly Bible studies. He had made peace with God, she said, was trying to improve himself.
“He was learning to be a better man.”
As to why Sowell ran from the car during the traffic stop, attorney Ruth Brown said that may never be known.
“What we do know,” Brown said, “is that because someone merely runs from police that does not give them any right to shoot and kill someone.”
The city has 60 days to formally respond to the federal lawsuit.