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Lack of training alleged in fatal police shooting outside McDonald’s

Lawsuit is filed in the death of 21-year-old Maryland man who reportedly pointed gun at officers.

Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones presents an officer's body-camera footage from a fatal police shooting of Ryan LeRoux. (Michael Kunzelman/AP)

The seconds before officers fatally shot Ryan LeRoux outside a Maryland McDonald’s last July have received wide attention. LeRoux reportedly pointed a gun at officers before they fired 23 rounds.

Now, as a negligence and mental disabilities lawsuit gets underway in federal court, LeRoux’s family has zeroed in on what they say are problems going back much further at the Montgomery County Police Department. The issues start, they say, with insufficient training for encounters with people in mental health crises and extend through the approximately 30 minutes that officers had their guns drawn on LeRoux before using them.

“We are focusing on the lack of training in the mental health space for police,” said Kobie Flowers, an attorney for Ryan’s parents, Rhonda and Paul LeRoux.

In citing the Americans With Disabilities Act, the lawsuit asserts that officers were obligated to account for LeRoux’s schizophrenia, depression and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder by waiting for a trained crisis negotiator instead of “escalating” the encounter by pointing their weapons at LeRoux and shouting at him. The broader goal of the litigation, Flowers said, is to “create a police culture that treats people in mental health crisis with the humanity they deserve.”

The complaint names as defendants the Montgomery County government and the four officers who fired at LeRoux while he was parked in a McDonald’s drive-through along Flower Hill Way in Gaithersburg on July 16. They had been sent there, along with about 14 other officers, after a McDonald’s employee called 911 to report that a man had ordered food in the drive-through, refused to pay for it, then parked his car in the drive-through and refused to leave.

At least two of the responding officers spotted a gun on LeRoux’s passenger seat, police said. Later in the encounter, six officers said they saw him lift and point the gun just before the fatal shots were fired.

Body-cam video in LeRoux shooting police is dark, unclear, police chief says

Video from officers’ body-worn cameras showed LeRoux appeared to raise something in his right hand, but the images couldn’t reveal with certainty what it was. LeRoux’s family has long said that LeRoux, who was left-handed, had lifted his cellphone. After the shooting, police found both the gun and cellphone on LeRoux’s lap.

Prosecutors from an outside agency — the Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office — investigated the case for months and presented their findings to a grand jury, which declined to file charges.

“The officers weren’t acting like cowboys,” prosecutor Christopher Sandmann said. “They tried to do what they could do.”

Under Maryland law, officers can use deadly force if they reasonably believe they face imminent risk of death or serious injuries. And the law generally allows them to keep shooting until they believe the threat is over.

Police have fatally shot roughly 1,000 people in each of the past seven years

But the lawsuit asserts that before the officers were ever in that position, their department’s policies had given them “few tools for managing” encounters with people in mental health crises, whom the lawsuit notes can misinterpret instructions and treat demands as if they’re under attack.

“MCPD’s failure to train these officers caused Mr. LeRoux’s death,” the lawsuit alleges.

Officials at Montgomery’s police department, police union and county attorney’s office declined to discuss the litigation.

Chaz Ball, an attorney who represented the four officers — Sara Vaughan, John Cerny, Brooks Inman and Cpl. Romand Schmuck — during the Howard County investigation, described their actions as justified.

“Mr. LeRoux’s death is unquestionably heartbreaking to his loved ones, a fact not lost on the officers who had to use force,” Ball said. “None of those officers woke up that day knowing that they would later be put in a position where lethal force would be their only option to protect their own lives, lives of fellow officers, and those of the civilians at the gas station and street behind them.”

Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones declined to discuss specifics of the lawsuit, citing a department policy against commenting on pending litigation. But he “totally disagreed” with the general assertion his department provides inadequate training for encounters with people in mental health crisis. Jones said 842 of the department’s nearly 1,300 sworn officers have completed a 40-hour “Crisis Intervention” training program, including the “vast majority” of front-line patrol officers. The program includes sessions on psychiatric disorders and de-escalation.

The chief said a broader ongoing audit of the department has studied all training programs and ways to enhance them — and the review may lead to additional training for such encounters. But even at current levels, Jones said, his officers are well-prepared.

“We’re having encounters with people in crises on a daily basis. They’re almost always handled without confrontation, without incident,” Jones said. “But at the end of the day, we don’t control all aspects of a person we encounter. They can make decisions that force us to sometimes take different actions.”

External audit finds shortcomings in key areas of Montgomery County policing

The lawsuit details Ryan LeRoux’s mental health struggles throughout his life. He spent time undergoing inpatient treatment at Sheppard Pratt psychiatric hospital and later was involuntary committed to a different hospital. In October 2020, according to the lawsuit, the state police found him walking nude by the side of the road during a psychotic episode in which he claimed people were chasing him. At the time of his death, the lawsuit states, a prescription for Risperidone — a drug used to treat schizophrenia — was found in LeRoux’s car.

The ligation does not contend that officers could or should have known the details about LeRoux’s past. But it does tick off factors that should have made clear to the officers that they were dealing with someone in crisis.

Among them, a 911 call placed by McDonald’s employees said a man was “acting crazy” because he would not move out of the drive-through lane, was wearing headphones and had not paid for his food, the lawsuit said.

LeRoux was in the same position in the drive-through when the first officer arrived. As the officer looked into the car, he spotted a handgun on the passenger seat, according to audio heard on body-camera recordings later released by police. The officer drew his service weapon, pointed it at LeRoux and shouted at him to keep his hands up, according to audio and video his body-camera recording.

LeRoux remained reclined in his seat with both hands on his cellphone.

The officer tried unsuccessfully to get LeRoux to open a locked door before the officer retreated and took cover behind a concrete light post, according to body camera recordings. Other officers began arriving.

The lawsuit faults the arriving officers, asserting that they should have called in a special unit designed to handle mental health emergencies.

Officers at the scene tried to communicate with LeRoux over a loudspeaker and by calling him on his cellphone. Body-camera recordings picked up a brief phone call between a sergeant and LeRoux.

“Hey, Ryan, this is Sergeant Worden up here at the McDonald’s, what’s going on, man? … Hello?”

Then the recording picked up Worden saying: “He just hung up on me.”

A 911 operator reached LeRoux and tried to get him to put his hands out of his car window. While LeRoux told the operator he was doing so, officers in the parking lot said they didn’t see him doing so, according to prosecutors’ findings.

Crisis counselors are being hailed as police alternatives. It’s too heavy a burden, some say.

At one point, about 19 minutes into the encounter, a captain who arrived at the scene called for a crisis negotiator. Around the same time, an officer saw movement inside LeRoux’s car and spoke about it — her words picked up on a body-worn device.

“He’s raised the gun!” she said. “He’s raised the gun!”

She did not shoot, nor did any of the other officers at the scene.

About 16 minutes later, when officers reported that LeRoux was again raising his gun, four of them fired, police said. One officer fired a rifle 10 times. Three others fired 13 shots total from their handguns. Less than 90 minutes later, after being rushed to a hospital, LeRoux was pronounced dead.