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Police shooting of suicidal Lewes man justified, says DOJ

Courtesy of the Delaware Department of Justice
Police responding to the scene, as captured by a Lewes Police Department dashboard camera

The state Department of Justice has determined a state trooper was justified in shooting a suicidal man in Lewes last fall. 

Delaware State Police Cpl. Nicholas T. McLaughlin shot and killed Shane S. Swider— who was armed, intoxicated and suicidal— outside a home in Lewes on Nov. 29, 2019. McLaughlin said he fired because Swider raised the gun he was threatening to kill himself with toward McLaughlin and another officer. 

The Div. of Civil Rights and Public Trust concluded in an investigation reportpublished this week that McLaughlin was justified under the state’s Use of Force standard, because he actually believed he and the other officer were in danger—and was not reckless or negligent in forming that belief. 

Only one officer other than McLaughlin said he saw the shooting. None of the vehicle dashboard cameras were aimed at the altercation. And Mike Brickner of the ACLU of Delaware notes none of the six officers at the scene were wearing body cameras. 

“Having body-worn cameras on and function during one of those interactions could provide a little bit more information about exactly what transpired … and I think would be important to help to make the public have even greater confidence in the findings of the investigation,” he said. 

According to the DOJ report, McLaughlin radioed for a less-lethal bean bag gun and a Crisis Management Team — which apparently did not show up. 

Brickner says crisis intervention training for officers should be expanded, and more mental health counsellors should be available to respond to situations like this one. 

“If you go back to the 911 call that was placed … they immediately reported to the dispatcher that the person was armed but that they were suicidal and that they were obviously having a mental health crisis,” he said. “Waiting for the police officer on the scene to call for the Crisis Intervention Team, that costs more time.”

Delaware State Police spokesperson Cpl. Jason Hatchell declined to comment on how its Crisis Intervention Team is dispatched or the de-escalation training that ordinary officers receive. He also declined to provide McLaughlin’s employment status. A police statement after the incident said McLaughlin was placed on administrative leave as per Divisional policy. 

Advocates and elected officials, including Attorney General Kathy Jennings, have advocated formaking the state’s Use of Force law more stringent.

The state Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment. 

“The Delaware Criminal Code is written in a manner that provides a great deal of deference to police officers with respect to the use of deadly force, and allows for a review of the reasonableness of their use of deadly force toward a person they believe to be armed, only in very narrow circumstances,” DOJ officials wrote in a previous deadly force investigation.

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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