INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Sept. 10, 2015) – The family of a man who was killed by police when officers say he ran, turned and fired on them is suing the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) in federal court.
The suit also claims the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department covered up the death of Donte Sowell, 27, by perpetrating a false story about the events of the Jan. 15 shooting.
Sowell was the father of three children with a fourth on the way, a convicted violent felon out of prison less than a year and on his way to a friend's house to retrieve a cell phone, his family said, when he was killed by police officers.
"He had done nothing to justify the use of deadly force," said attorney Ruth Brown as she represented Sowell's family during a briefing at an eastside church following the filing of the civil rights lawsuit. "Multiple witnesses confirm that he was unarmed, that he had surrendered to police but they kept shooting at him until they killed him."
The family's attorneys released a copy of Sowell's autopsy report indicating there were two gunshot wounds to the man's back.
Brown said the stories of those unnamed witnesses will be revealed during the course of the litigation.
The Marion County grand jury declined to criminally indict any of the officers, or a passing security guard who joined in the firing of shots, for their actions that night.
IMPD Chief Rick Hite was emphatic that his officers feared for their lives when he said Sowell turned and fired, his bullets striking a police car, a bus and a patrolman in the foot.
"We don't know what was in the man's mind when he exited the vehicle with a gun on his person and he was en route somewhere," Hite said on the night of the shooting. "The officer may have very well saved another life.
"He was confronted by an armed subject without provocation. The subject fired upon the officer. he returned fire in defense of himself and the community."
Sowell's family said he was beloved by the community, the same one his prison record would indicate he victimized before his death.
In 2006, Sowell was sentenced to two years for conspiracy to commit armed robbery, followed in 2008 with a six year term for cocaine possession.
He was released in March 2014.
His criminal record aside, Sowell's family argues police had no reason to shoot him.
"Another young black man has gone with work undone and the opportunity for all his children and all to see," said Rachel Long, Sowell's fiance and mother of his children.
Sowell was the first of at least six people to die during police action shootings in Indianapolis this year.
"This is a police department whose rate of shootings is through the roof compared to other parts of the country," said attorney Matt Topic, who represents the family. "The idea that we should accept without question the evidence that 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."
The City of Indianapolis does not comment on pending lawsuits.
Earlier this week, the City agreed to pay a couple $370,000 when they were fired upon by an IMPD reserve officer after they knocked on the wrong door in search of a New Year's Eve party.
Chief Hite issued the following statement Thursday:
On the night of January 15, 2015 IMPD Officer Javed Richards encountered an armed suspect that ran from a car during a lawful traffic stop. Unprovoked, Sowell fired his gun first at Officer Richards. Officer Richards subsequently engaged in a heavy gun battle with Sowell that resulted in the officer sustaining a gunshot wound to the foot.
Contrary to the allegations in the complaint, a stolen handgun was recovered from Sowell at the scene. Additionally, a laboratory test performed by the Indianapolis-Marion County Forensic Services Agency showed that Sowell fired at least thirteen (13) shots at the officers during the gun battle.
During that gun battle, a civilian security officer came to the aid of the officer after the officer had been shot. Shots fired from Sowell’s gun produced heavy damage to both Officer Richards’s police vehicle and a IndyGo bus. The bus, which was behind Officer Richards, sustained a shattered window that nearly missed a mother, small infant and a bus driver who were on the bus at the time of the shooting.
At the time of this incident no officers were equipped with any Body Worn Camera devices. 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.