Chesterfield officer who fatally shot Charles Byers was sued for excessive force in 2020 (2024)

The attorney for the family of Charles Byers — who last summer was shot and killed by Chesterfield County police while experiencing a mental health crisis and carrying a hatchet — on Tuesday filed a motion to add a Chesterfield police officer and the county as defendants in an ongoing lawsuit connected to the case.

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In the motion, attorney Paul Curley alleged that Chesterfield police officer Gordon Painter violated Byers’ rights under the Fourth and 14th Amendments when he opened fire on Byers on July 8 in a Chesterfield neighborhood. Curley said that Chesterfield police were aware that Painter “had a propensity to use excessive force too quickly against citizens” based on prior incidents, and also accused Chesterfield authorities of conspiring to “cover up” the incident.

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Asked about Painter, a spokesperson for Chesterfield police said the department does not comment on personnel issues.

Officer sued in 2020

Court records show that Painter in August 2020 was sued in federal court by Kenneth Wilson, who alleged that Painter had violated his civil rights by “violently arrest(ing him) without probable cause” on March 29, 2019 — 4 years before Byers’ death.

Painter initiated a traffic stop for a defective headlight as Wilson was driving on Hull Street Road, according to a civil complaint. Despite the fact that Wilson had no active warrants, the complaint says Painter grabbed Wilson’s arm and ordered him to step out of the vehicle.

Painter then allegedly punched Wilson in the face before pulling him out of the car and slamming him to the ground, even though Wilson was not resisting arrest. Painter searched Wilson’s vehicle without probable cause or asking for consent, and found marijuana in the car, according to the complaint.

A single charge of marijuana possession, filed against Wilson the day of his arrest, was later dismissed, according to court records. No other criminal charges appear to have been filed in the incident.

In the 2020 suit against Painter, the attorney for Wilson said Painter already had a documented “history of abuse” even before he arrested Wilson, and that Chesterfield police knew about his track record. The suit was settled for an undisclosed sum in January 2022 after the Virginia Eastern District Court rejected Painter’s claim of qualified immunity, court records show.

In barring the appeal to qualified immunity, the court found that Painter had used force that a “reasonable officer would understand … constitutes excessive force.” The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling.

Four years later, Chesterfield police had done nothing “to prevent (Painter) from continuing to interact with the citizens of Chesterfield,” Curley said, ultimately leading to Byers’ death.

Asked about Painter, Chesterfield police spokesperson Liz Caroon said the department does “not comment on any one officer’s personnel history.”

“Our officers’ use of force, in each instance force is used, is reviewed and judged in accordance with our Use of Force policy.”

It is not clear whether Painter faced any disciplinary action in connection with the case.

Chesterfield officer who fatally shot Charles Byers was sued for excessive force in 2020 (3)

‘Verifiably untrue’

In the Tuesday filing, Curley said Chesterfield police attempted to cover up the incident by claiming that Byers had advanced on the officers when they arrived: a statement Curley called “verifiably untrue.” Chesterfield police then refused to release the body camera footage of the shooting to the public “despite multiple requests from Byers’ family and the media,” Curley said.

Chesterfield police have declined multiple Freedom of Information Act requests for the footage from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and turned down a request to schedule a viewing of the video: a departure from Chesterfield Police Chief Jeffrey Katz’s previous promise that “anyone who wants to see the video can come in and see the video.” The Times-Dispatch on June 26 obtained a partial clip of the footage from a court filing.

Chesterfield police spokesperson Liz Caroon acknowledged discrepancies between the department’s original statement on the shooting and the eventual findings of the county’s investigation.

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“Based on initial patrol officer interviews at the scene, Chesterfield investigators understood Mr. Byers to have been advancing with the hatchet in hand at the time of the shooting,” Caroon previously told the Times-Dispatch. “Through investigation, we have determined that Mr. Byers did advance toward the officers while wielding the hatchet, but it was at a different point in the sequence of events than we initially understood.”

At no point in the body camera footage of the incident does Byers appear to advance toward the officers.

The shooting of Charles Byers

The body camera footage of Byers’ death, obtained by The Times-Dispatch, shows Painter and another officer responding to the 1200 block of Wycliffe Court after a resident reported that Byers had tried to break into a house. Curley said Byers thought the home belonged to his parents, who lived blocks away.

In the footage, Painter can be seen discharging his firearm as Byers backed away from him and then shooting at Byers’s back twice as Byers turned and attempted to flee.

Chesterfield prosecutors in April called the shooting “justified,” and said no charges would be filed. But Curley said the shooting was a show of “excessive force.”

“Throughout the … the interaction, Charlie walked backwards away from the two … officers, but the officers continued to pursue him yelling at him to drop the hatchet.” Curley said in the amended complaint. At no point did the officers attempt to de-escalate the situation or “attempt to speak to Charlie in a professional or non-threatening way,” Curley said.

Then, with seemingly no provocation, Painter began shooting, Curley said.

“At the time that the first bullet was fired, Charlie was at least 25 feet away from Officer Painter and Charlie’s head was turned away from Officer Painter. Charlie was not a threat to Officer Painter or anyone else,” he said in the amended complaint. “After the first three shots, Charlie turned and tried to get away from Officer Painter, who continued shooting Charlie in his back.”

Byers was then handcuffed while “dying and gasping for his last breaths,” Curley said.

The lawsuit expands

The Byers’ lawsuit, filed last fall, initially named only the city of Richmond and Chippenham Hospital, but Curley’s motion seeks to add Chesterfield police to the list of defendants.

On July 6 — two days before his death — Byers had been admitted to Chippenham Hospital’s Tucker Pavilion and placed under a 72-hour temporary detention order for mental health treatment. But Byers was unlawfully discharged later that night after he was arrested by Richmond police inside the hospital, Curley said.

Hospital staff had attempted to move Byers to another room, but Byers was afraid to get in the elevator and became uncooperative, according to Curley. A Richmond police officer was summoned to “bully” Byers and then detained him, leading to his discharge, according to Curley.

But Curley has argued that the decision to release Byers violated Virginia law, which requires that a magistrate or facility director approve the discharge of a patient subject to a temporary detention order. That approval was never obtained, Curley said, and Byers was ultimately released into the public on his own recognizance in the middle of the night.

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The city of Richmond and Chippenham Hospital have declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

Curley said the problem is “systemic,” implicating all three of the institutions involved.

“The purpose of this lawsuit is to bring to light the … breakdown of the mental health crisis system in the greater Richmond metropolitan area,” Curley said.

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Chesterfield officer who fatally shot Charles Byers was sued for excessive force in 2020 (6)

Samuel B. Parker (804) 649-6462

sparker@timesdispatch.com

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Chesterfield officer who fatally shot Charles Byers was sued for excessive force in 2020 (2024)
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