HOUSTON (AP) — The family of an unarmed, black Houston man who was fatally shot by a sheriff’s deputy has filed a federal lawsuit and on Thursday argued that authorities should have used non-lethal force as he was in the midst of a mental health crisis.
Danny Ray Thomas died after a March 22 confrontation with Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy Cameron Brewer. His family’s lawsuit was filed Wednesday in Houston federal court.
“This lawsuit is about dealing with issues that are way too pronounced in America, involving mental illness, as well as race, unarmed citizens being killed unnecessarily by the people who are supposed to protect and serve us,” civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, one of the family’s lawyers, said at a news conference Thursday.
Crump has represented families in similar cases around the country, including Trayvon Martin’s. The unarmed, black Florida teenager was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012.
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In the Texas case, witnesses say 35-year-old Danny Ray Thomas had been walking in the street with his pants around his ankles, hitting passing cars with his hands and talking to himself when Brewer confronted him. Authorities say Thomas was shot after he continued to approach Brewer and ignored commands to get on the ground.
Video footage from Brewer’s dashboard camera and from a bystander shows Thomas, who didn’t have anything in his hands, walking toward Brewer. Neither video shows him being shot.
The shooting happened about 30 seconds after Brewer arrived at the scene.
No footage from Brewer’s body camera is available because the deputy had only been issued the camera two hours before the shooting and it was charging in his vehicle at the time of the confrontation, according to the sheriff’s office.
Brewer, whose race has not been released, was equipped with a Taser at the time of the shooting.
First Assistant Harris County Attorney Robert Soard said officials are aware of the lawsuit but the county does not comment on pending litigation.
The sheriff’s office and the union representing deputies didn’t immediately respond to emails Thursday seeking comment about the lawsuit.
Marketta Thomas said her brother was not a threat to anybody and had been grieving the loss of his two children. Danny Ray Thomas’ estranged wife, Sheborah Thomas, is awaiting trial on two capital murder charges for the 2016 deaths of the couple’s 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. Authorities allege she drowned the children in a bathtub.
Danny Ray Thomas was in prison on a drug conviction when he learned his children had been killed.
“This should have never happened to my brother,” Marketta Thomas said. “No one with mental illness … nobody deserves to die, nobody — because they’re already dying inside, suffering.”
Crump questioned why Brewer did not use his Taser when Thomas didn’t have a weapon on him.
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, accuses the sheriff’s office of not adequately training its deputies in the use of excessive or deadly force and in the use of de-escalation tactics.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez has previously said he found it “concerning” that Brewer went straight to the use of lethal force instead of using other techniques first, but that he wanted to find out what the deputy saw at the time of the confrontation.
Some civil rights groups have criticized the shooting, questioning whether it was justified.
The shooting remains under investigation and the findings will ultimately be presented to a grand jury. In Harris County, grand juries have typically declined to indict officers in such shootings.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70