The family of Brendan Reilly, a local resident who suffered from mental health problems and was shot and killed by a Lexington police officer in Feb. 2022, has filed a wrongful death suit against the Town of Lexington, the officers involved, the company which managed the group home where Reilly was living at the time, a company contracted to provide care for residents, and individual health care providers who allegedly failed to administer Reilly’s antipsychotic medications in the hours leading up to the fatal encounter.
The lawsuit was filed on Monday, a few days after Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan released a report finding that the shooting was justified. The report says that under the circumstances, “no reasonable alternative existed except the use of deadly force.”
On Feb. 12, 2022, at around noon, a jogger placed a 911 call reporting that a man was leaning out of the window of a house on Hancock Street screaming that someone was trying to kill him. Police arrived on the scene to find Reilly looking disheveled and holding a kitchen knife in the backyard of the house, a group home for people with addiction and mental health issues. According to the report, which was based on testimony from 36 witnesses, the officers repeatedly asked Reilly to drop the knife; when he failed to comply, they began firing bean bags rounds at him. In the commotion, Officer Steven Papia slipped and fell to the ground. Reilly advanced toward the fallen officer with his knife, and another officer, Joseph Carruthers, shot Reilly four times with his department-issued Glock 17 firearm. Reilly was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead later that afternoon. He was 35 years old.
“When Papia slipped and fell, Reilly sprang to his feet and charged at Papia with his knife raised and with what a reasonable person would believe was an intention to stab and potentially kill Papia,” the report says. “The Court finds that, absent Officer Carruthers’ use of lethal force, Papia was at grave risk of serious injury or death and that the use of lethal force was necessary to defend Officer Papia.”
The wrongful death complaint filed by the family’s attorney is less focused on whether Officer Carruthers had a reasonable alternative at that moment, and more on the circumstances that lead to that point.
“There was a breakdown, clearly, of the appropriate measures that would be taken for someone suffering from psychosis,” Brendan’s mother, Carol Reilly, told LexObserver. “It’s very troubling.”
The family argues that the officers were aware that Reilly suffered from mental health issues — the facility where he lived was familiar to local police, and some of the officers knew him by name from previous encounters — but did not employ proper techniques for dealing with people with mental illness. Rather than de-escalating the situation, the complaint says, officers yelled commands at Reilly and failed to bring a mental health provider to the scene to speak to him. The complaint points a finger at the Town for insufficient training and failing to have a social worker or mental health counselor available to respond to situations involving a mental health crisis.
The complaint also names Eliot Community Human Services, the organization that runs the group home where Reilly lived; Innovive Health, formerly knowns as Nizhoni Health Systems, a company that Eliot contracted with to deliver and administer medications to residents, and several individual health care providers who worked for Eliot or Nizhoni, for failing to provide proper care. Reilly’s medications, which are usually administered twice a day, were not administered on the afternoon of Feb. 11 or the morning of Feb. 12. As a result, “Brendan suffered a mental health crisis resulting in a police encounter, subsequent conscious pain and suffering, and death,” the complaint says.
“We were always fearful for his safety, but not in my wildest dreams would I ever have thought that his life would be taken by police while he was in the middle of a psychiatric emergency,” Carol Reilly said.
Carol says that she visited her son regularly and was well known to his caregivers. The home where he lived provided somewhat independent living; health care providers were supposed to check in twice a day and deliver medication. She always had extra medication on hand in case there was a problem, but no one called her that day to ask for her help in getting Reilly his medication or to try to talk him down from his agitated state. “The only call I received was from the hospital saying that he was deceased,” she said.
“This tragedy was extremely upsetting to the entire Lexington community,” the Lexington Police Department said in a statement Tuesday. “Our thoughts are with the family of Mr. Reilly and all of the officers involved and their families.”
“The death of Brendan Reilly was tragic for everyone involved and resulted from a lethal confluence of factors: Reilly’s long standing mental illness, Reilly’s possession and threatened use of a dangerous weapon, and an unfortunate series of events leading to Officer Papia’s slip and fall,” the District Attorney’s report says.
Since 2018, Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan has requested a judicial inquest in every officer-involved shooting. Judge Michael Brennen conducted the inquest, which began in Dec. 2022 and concluded in March 2023. In addition to the final report released Friday, the transcripts of the proceedings, as well as exhibits including Ring video, an audio recording of a 911 call, and photos taken on the scene, were all made public.
“This whole process for a year and a half has been quite tormenting,” Carol Reilly said. “There needs to be so much more awareness and training for all of our officials.”
“Let’s hope for change, that’s what’s really important,” she said.
The complaint seeks monetary damages against each defendant “in an amount to be determined by a jury” as well as punitive damages against certain defendants.