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County May Pay $3.3 Million To Family Of Unarmed Man Fatally Shot By Sheriff's Deputies

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The L.A. County Board of Supervisors will consider on Tuesday a $3.3 million payment to settle a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of John Berry, who was unarmed and suffering from a schizophrenic episode in his car when L.A. County Sheriff's deputies shot and killed him in 2015, reports KPCC.

Berry's case highlighted two big issues concerning the sheriff's department: its code of conduct when it comes to shooting at moving cars, and its handling of people suffering from psychiatric disorders.

The July 6, 2015 encounter happened just outside Berry's Lakewood home. Berry's brother, Chris, had called sheriff's deputies with hopes that they'd take John to a psychiatric hospital, as John was believed to be suffering from a schizophrenic episode.

John, however, did not comply with orders to get out of his BMW. A video of the incident, captured by a neighbor, showed several deputies converging around Berry's car, which was being blocked in by patrol vehicles. The driver's side door was open; one deputy was shown trying to drag Berry out, and the L.A. Times reports that a Taser was fired at him.

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At one point, Berry reverses the car, then starts driving slowly forward. That's when deputies fired at Berry. According to the Times, the sheriff's department said that, as Berry started moving forward in his car, he'd trapped a deputy between the BMW and another car. "Fearing for the deputy's life, the assisting deputies fired at the suspect," the agency said in a statement. The video, shaky at times, shows Berry going in reverse, but does not show the moment that immediately precedes the shooting. The agency claimed that Berry drove into a patrol car head-on when deputies first arrived, which is also not shown in the video.

Berry's family, however, believes that the deputy had fallen beside the cars, and was never in imminent danger. Both the L.A. County District Attorney and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the deputies had acted lawfully, as they'd believed that a colleague was under imminent threat.

As noted at NPR, the practice of shooting at moving vehicles is something that the Los Angeles Police Department had cracked down in the past—from 2010 to 2014, the agency had virtually eliminated all instances of an officer shooting at a moving vehicle that was driven by an unarmed motorist. The sheriff's department, by contrast, had shot at eight unarmed motorists in that same period. The agency would revise its rule on the matter in 2016; the sheriff's department advises its deputies to refrain from shooting at a moving vehicle when no other weapons are present.

Armed drivers are not the only concern; as exemplified in Berry's case, authorities say that the car itself may be used as a weapon. But as Todd Rogers, an assistant L.A. sheriff, told NPR, this scenario can't be solved by shooting at the driver. "Chances are you are not going to kill the vehicle. You are not going to stop the vehicle. It is still going to be moving forward and everything in its path is going to get hit," said Rogers.

Earlier this year, the L.A. City Council agreed to a $1.5 million settlement with the family of Ezell Ford, who was shot in 2014 during a confrontation with LAPD officers; he was unarmed but was accused of reaching for an officer's gun. In late 2016, the council agreed to a $4 million settlement with the family of Brendon Glenn, a homeless man who was also unarmed when he was fatally shot by an LAPD officer.