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Family of man who died of overdose in Boston police custody files wrongful death lawsuit against department

“Everyone held in police custody is somebody’s child.”

Shayne Stilphen with his mother, Lynnel Cox. Courtesy of Lynnel Cox via ACLU of Massachusetts

The family of a Massachusetts man who died of a drug overdose while in the custody of Boston police in July 2019 is suing the department, alleging that multiple officers failed to provide medical care that would have saved the 28-year-old’s life. 

The wrongful death lawsuit, filed Monday on behalf of Shayne Stilphen’s family by the ACLU of Massachusetts and Goodwin Proctor LLP, names the Boston Police Department and several individual officers as defendants, alleging they denied Stilphen his “constitutional right to medical care and unlawfully discriminated against [him] on the basis of his opioid use disorder (OUD) in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” 

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“Shayne was a beloved son, brother, and friend,” Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement. “And like millions of Americans, Shayne had a disease for which he needed treatment—not punishment. Yet the complaint alleges that, over the course of several hours, BPD officers repeatedly failed to respond to Shayne’s obvious medical needs, violating his constitutional rights and ultimately ensuring that his family, friends, and community would never see him or experience the joy of his company again. Nothing can repair this loss, but police must be held accountable for the way they treat—or fail to treat—people in their custody.” 

A spokesperson for Boston police declined to comment on the lawsuit on Monday, citing the pending litigation. 

Stilphen, a Quincy native, struggled with opioid use disorder for years, according to the complaint. He started using opioids in high school, spending the following years going between active addiction and recovery. 

“Shayne utilized harm reduction practices because he wanted to live: he carried the overdose reversal medication Narcan and tried to use substances in the presence of other people so that they could administer this life-saving medication if he began exhibiting the clear signs of an overdose,” the complaint reads. “Although Shayne overdosed many times as a result of his disease, Narcan is extremely effective, and it repeatedly saved his life.”

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Stilphen was arrested on July 14, 2019, around 1 a.m. in the area of Mass. and Cass, the epicenter of the overlapping overdose, mental health, and homelessness crises in the region. According to the complaint, he was stopped by police officers because he matched the description of someone who had allegedly broken into a car.

The 28-year-old reportedly told one of the officers he had taken opioids about 30 minutes before and recently left a detox treatment center. 

The lawsuit alleges that throughout the booking process at the District 4 station, videos captured that Stilphen struggled to stay awake, could not stand on his own, and that his body contorted into unnatural postures. But instead of providing medical care for the signs of opioid over-intoxication, the family alleges the department put the 28-year-old in a cell by himself, where he continued to ingest drugs over the course of the next two hours. 

Stilphen slumped forward with his torso folded over his crossed legs, remaining in that position for almost an hour while different officers, who the complaint allege had access to overdose reversal medication, walked by the cell seven times. 

When an eighth officer walked by the cell for the first time, he intervened, later reporting that the 28-year-old was “in a position that looked as if it would be of extreme discomfort for most individuals,” according to the complaint. The officer attempted to administer Narcan when Stilphen was unresponsive to his name being called. 

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By that time, according to the complaint, the 28-year-old’s heart had stopped beating and it was too late to reverse the overdose. 

“Shayne had a disease, and needed help,” Lynnel Cox, his mother, said in a statement. “Shayne was my only son, and I miss his warm spirit every day. Nothing has been the same since he has died. Everyone held in police custody is somebody’s child. Nobody deserves to die like Shayne did, and no family deserves to lose their loved one like we did.” 

The complaint alleges that less than two months before Stilphen’s death, another man died of a suspected overdose while in police custody at District 4 but no changes were made to the department’s “policies, practices, customs, training, or supervision with respect to the people it encountered, arrested, and booked at the District 4 station.”

At the time of Stilphen’s death, the 28-year-old had been talking with his mother about his future plans to go into recovery, asking that she help him get into a long-term recovery program so he could realize his goal of becoming a barber — the “Boston Barbah” — and start his own family.

According to the complaint, the 28-year-old’s death has been widely felt. 

“For years following Shayne’s death and every so often even to this day, Lynnel receives messages from people sharing with her the positive impact that Shayne had on their lives,” the complaint reads. “One staff person at a rehabilitation facility where Shayne was a patient shortly before he died wrote: ‘There are people that you meet along the way that will forever remain in your heart and Shayne was one of those people.’”

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Stilphen’s struggles with addiction, and his openness about them with his mother, prompted her to create an organization “Hand Delivered Hope,” which offers “hope bags” to those dealing with substance use. The bags include a stamped note card and pen for them to write home to loved ones, inspired by her son explaining why he always wrote home, rather than calling, when he was in active addiction. 

“It is too painful to hear you cry, but I want you to know I’m thinking of you guys and I’m okay,” he told her, according to the complaint. 

“Family was everything to Shayne, and Shayne was absolutely everything to us,” his mother said in a statement. “Shayne gave me one of life’s most precious gifts: motherhood. I’m hoping the last gift I can give Shayne is justice, so that no one else experiences this constant and unbearable pain.”