The District has reached a $3.5 million settlement with the family of Terrence Sterling, the unarmed motorcyclist who was fatally shot in 2016 by a D.C. police officer during an attempted arrest for reckless driving.
The settlement in the wrongful-death lawsuit comes four months after an internal review by the D.C. police concluded that Officer Brian Trainer should not have pulled his gun and was not in danger when he fired at Sterling. The department ruled the shooting unjustified.
On Wednesday, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said in a statement that the city had sought to “illuminate what went wrong.”
“When something bad happens, we keep the public’s trust by looking into what went wrong and taking steps to make things right,” Bowser said. “In the tragic death of Terrence Sterling, a family lost a beloved son and brother, and thus we have a duty to bring some sense of closure to his family. This settlement is a step in that direction.”
District officials said the settlement is the highest ever reached in a fatal police shooting by an on-duty city officer.
Sterling’s parents, Isaac and Florence Sterling, appreciate that they were able to reach an agreement with the city and end what could have been a protracted court case, the family said. They had filed a $50 million lawsuit against the District.
“This is something we worked long and hard for. It doesn’t bring Terrence back, but it does bring some closure,” Isaac Sterling said in an interview. “We are satisfied.”
The Sept. 11, 2016, shooting at Third and M streets NW sparked protests in parts of the city and immediately prompted questions about the conduct of Trainer and his partner. The two officers had pulled in front of Sterling’s motorcycle to make the traffic stop, and Trainer, who was getting out, fired when the bike struck his car door. The officer later said he felt his life was in danger, according to the internal report. But witnesses said the motorcyclist appeared to be trying to steer around the police car.
Bowser at the time ordered Trainer’s name made public soon after the incident, breaking with long-standing policy. Authorities also revealed that the officer had failed to turn on the camera on his uniform before the shooting.
Last August, federal prosecutors who investigated the shooting determined there was not enough evidence to file criminal charges against Trainer, who is 28.
D.C. police officials, however, recommended that the officer be fired.
The events leading up to the shooting began about 4:20 a.m., when officers got a call about a motorcycle being driven erratically in Adams Morgan. The motorcycle ran several red lights, and one officer said he spotted it driving in excess of 100 mph, according to the report by the department’s Use of Force Review Board.
An autopsy later determined that Sterling’s blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit, and he tested positive for marijuana. Sterling’s family has said they believe the HVAC technician from Fort Washington had been at a party and was headed home.
The internal police review found that Trainer and his partner, Officer Jordan Palmer, began to track Sterling through the city. Two ranking officers had ordered police not to pursue Sterling, according to the report.
Trainer and Palmer eventually spotted the motorcycle stopped at a red light at Third and M streets in Northwest D.C., near the Third Street Tunnel. They pulled their marked cruiser into an intersection ahead of the biker.
Trainer was getting out of the passenger side of the squad car as Sterling rode forward and the motorcycle struck the car door. Trainer then fired his gun twice, striking Sterling in the neck and back.
Trainer told investigators that he heard the bike revving before it came “violently” toward him and pinned his leg between the door and the car’s body, according to the internal police report. He said he fired because he feared for his safety, as well as Palmer’s safety.
But investigators concluded that Trainer’s decision to shoot “was not in defense of his life, nor was it in defense of the lives of others,” according to the internal report.
Trainer, who has been on the force since 2012, is on paid administrative leave. He has challenged the recommendation that he be fired. A public hearing is scheduled for April 11.
Early Wednesday morning, Jason Downs, one of the Sterling family attorneys, filed notice with D.C. Superior Court to dismiss the lawsuit against the city following the settlement.
“Hopefully this settlement will highlight and continue the very important conversation about police violence on unarmed black men,” said Hassan Murphy, another of the Sterling family attorneys.
The firm of Murphy, Falcon & Murphy, which represents the Sterling family, also represented the family of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody in Baltimore in 2015. In that case, they helped the Gray family secure a $6.4 million settlement from Baltimore.