Wrongful death lawsuit filed for fatal shooting of mentally ill man

Posted at 4:54 PM, Jan 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-23 16:58:43-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A lawsuit has been filed against Kent County Sheriff’s Department for the fatal shooting of a man in 2017.

Jonathan Sper was shot four times through a door by a Kent County deputy after a prolonged incident involving the assault of his brother and two responding officers.

On Wednesday the father of Jonathan Sper, David Sper, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the sheriff’s office, the deputies involved, former Sheriff Lawrence Stelma and current Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young.

The lawsuit alleges deputies didn’t have sufficient training with handling people with mental illnesses, which led to an unnecessary use of force.

Jonathan Sper had a history of mental illness and had been treated for bipolar disorder and bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder. The lawsuit says he failed to receive proper treatment while spending a night in the Kent County Correctional Facility the day before his death, and that dispatchers were warned of his history when his brother called 911.

The incident happened in January of 2017 at a residence in Algoma Township. Sper’s brother, Stephen Sper, called 911 after Jonathan Sper showed up at his home upon being released from jail and became violent when he was asked to leave.

Stephen Sper told dispatchers he believed his brother was having a “manic episode.” According to the lawsuit, Stephen Sper also told deputies upon arrival that his brother was in a “manic state” and that he didn’t believe he was in any danger.

Deputies Jason Wiersma and John Tuinhoff responded to the call and made contact with Jonathan Sper in the garage. Authorities said he didn’t comply with commands and resisted contact, hitting Wiersma several times.

A police report of the incident said Sper was able to get away and pushed deputies down about 15 wooden stairs, leading to a scuffle. Deputies said they attempted to use a taser, but it had no effect, and that Jonathan Sper struck them with bottles and other sharp objects at the bottom of the stairwell.

The report says Jonathan Sper then went past the deputies into a room where his brother was and closed a door while holding a sharp object. Wiersma reported being concerned Stephen Sper was in danger at that point and fired four shots through the door. 

Jonathan Sper was hit three times in the neck, shoulder and arm. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

The lawsuit says that Wiersma and Tuinhoff escalated Jonathan Sper’s episode by entering the garage and pointing their guns and taser at him. It says neither deputy saw Jonathan Sper with a weapon in his hand at any point during the altercation and that he represented no danger after closing the door.

The Wyoming Department of Public Safety investigated the incident before submitting its findings to the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office. Prosecutors determined the use of fatal force was justified given the circumstances.

The Kent County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on the lawsuit due to pending litigation, and referred back to a 2017 statement:

“The Sper Family is mourning the loss of a beloved son, brother, and uncle. We know that Jonathan is in a better place — a place where he no longer has to wrestle with mental illness. He was diagnosed with bipolar schizoaffective disorder, and over the last decade, he was actively trying to rehabilitate himself and manage his mental illness. Even while dealing with this disorder, he was a great friend to many people. He was a dreamer, full of life, and had a fierce entrepreneurial spirit.

In addition to the thoughts and prayers going out to our family, please keep in mind the officers who were involved in this tragic event. While serving our community and risking their lives every day, members of law enforcement must confront mental illness in its worst form. Although there are already tremendous efforts in this community to provide resources for the mentally ill, the Office of the Sheriff and the Sper family have a desire to advocate for continued improvement in how mentally ill people are handled by the criminal justice system and by community mental health providers so that this tragedy is not repeated. Through this advocacy, we hope to achieve a safer community for everyone, with a safety net for those living with mental illness, enabling them to live their lives in peace.

The need to thoroughly evaluate the incident and to work through the investigation is imperative. With that said, we would like to clarify some of the initial narrative. Jonathan was dropped off at his brother’s house around 5:00 p.m. in a manic state. His brother did his best to confine Jonathan and to deescalate the situation with the intent of peacefully removing him from the property. After 2 hours, and a brief physical altercation, it was obvious that the brother needed assistance from law enforcement, at which point he called 911. The 911 operator was informed of Jonathan’s manic state. When the police arrived, the two brothers were already separated. The officers were again informed of Jonathan’s manic state from his brother. Jonathan was in the garage when the two officers arrived. Upon approaching Jonathan, the officers issued orders that were not followed. A struggle between the officers and Jonathan ensued which ended in Jonathan’s death.

The Sper family asks for two things during this time of mourning — peace and privacy from the media, and donations to be made to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, so they can continue to support hundreds of thousands of families, advocate for better resources and tools for mental health providers, and lead awareness activities and events to encourage understanding and prevent situations like this from occurring in the future. A memorial fundraiser has been created for Jonathan Sper and can be found on NAMI’s website, littp://ifundraise.riamLorg/campaignisper”