Two months after paying $3 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of a woman killed by police in 2016, Baltimore County has agreed to pay $6.5 million to the family of a man fatally shot in 2019 after his mother called 911 worried that he was driving drunk and had threatened suicide. The county may face another big payout in a lawsuit brought by the family of a man a federal judge has said posed no threat, but was shot to death by police. Police should change their training to better protect themselves and the citizens they are sworn to help — but also to save taxpayer money.
Central to these cases, and to many similar tragedies beyond Baltimore County, is the failure to train officers to deal with people who are experiencing a mental crisis.
Eric Sopp was a 48-year-old former teacher who had battled alcoholism and on the night of Nov. 26, 2019, was on a drinking binge. His mother called 911, worried that he was driving drunk and might hurt someone. She told the dispatcher he had threatened suicide. Officer Gregory A. Page pulled Sopp over, approached with his gun drawn, and yelled commands to put his hands on the dash and turn the car off. Sopp refused and said he was getting out of the car, and when he exited the car Officer Page fired at least eight times. Sopp was unarmed. Local prosecutors decided the officer’s actions were justified, and Officer Page has remained on duty.
Tellingly, the body-cam video of the incident is in the curriculum developed by the Police Executive Research Forum to train officers on how to deal with situations of people in crisis in hopes of reducing the number of police shootings. It’s an example of what not to do. The 911 operator had relayed that Sopp was a person in crisis, but the officer seemed not to assess the risk or realize this was a person in need of help and not a threat. Approaching the car with his gun drawn and barking commands escalated the situation, heightening the anxiety of someone already in distress. Surely there were alternatives to shooting an unarmed man exiting his car.
“When I called 911,” his mother told The Post’s Tom Jackman, “I thought he would receive help. Instead it cost him his life.” A similar theme was sounded by U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander when she refused to dismiss the lawsuit brought by the family of Jeffrey Gene Evans, who was fatally shot by Baltimore County police in 2015 after his girlfriend called to report he had taken a large number of pills. “They shot and killed a man who needed [their] help,” she wrote.
The lawyer for Sopp’s family, which includes two children left behind, said the hope is that the county will now take action to prevent future unnecessary shootings. Good that Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt has announced an expansion of the mobile crisis team that handles behavioral health related calls for service and has promised improvements in how officers are trained.