The Fire and Police Commission will not discipline any Milwaukee police officers in connection with the in-custody death of Derek Williams in July 2011, according to a letter Executive Director Michael Tobin wrote.  A video of Williams gasping for breath and begging for help in the back of a squad car sparked community outrage.

Officers will not be punished for violating a department rule that requires them to remain aware of prisoners’ conditions, the letter says, in part because they could not see Williams…The letter makes no mention of the fact that the officers could have viewed the live video feed on a computer screen in the front seat.  It also does not address the fact that Officer Jeffrey Cline responded to Williams’ pleas by saying, “You’re breathing just fine.”  Tobin’s letter does not address the fact that Sgt. Robert Thiel did not complete any paperwork.

In an interview, Tobin said officers had not been trained to pull up the real-time video. He also said not every officer or every supervisor who responds to a scene is required to file incident reports.  Tobin said officers had received Red Cross training that taught them if someone is talking, it means they can breathe. That contradicts testimony at an inquest.  The testimony indicated that police officers have a false cultural belief that if you can talk you can breathe, but that isn’t based in any medical research nor is it taught as training.  Talking is not a medical distress standard.

“In hindsight, the officers probably should have done something different,” Tobin said. “At the time, they made the decision. It turns out the decision was incorrect…”

Prosecutors had previously cleared the three officers of any criminal charges.  The only remaining possibility would be for Williams’ death to become part of a federal lawsuit for a pattern of civil rights violations.  Federal officials have said they are weighing such a suit.  Williams’ girlfriend, Sharday Rose, also may pursue a civil suit on behalf of their three young children.  A Journal Sentinel investigation prompted the Milwaukee County medical examiner’s office to change the manner of Williams’ death from natural to homicide.

The Milwaukee County police department has implemented new measures because of this case.  Now officers will have no discretion in calling 911.  Officers must call 911 when anyone complains of injury, is having trouble breathing, is bleeding profusely, or experiencing pain.

Previously, Milwaukee police chief Edward Flynn refused twice to discipline anyone.  At the state level, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm initially declined to issue criminal charges. After the medical examiner issued the revised findings, Chisholm appointed a special prosecutor.  The inquest jury recommended state misdemeanor charges against the three officers:  Cline, Ticcioni, and Bleichwehl.  Special Prosecutor John Franke went against that advice and declined to issue charges, saying there was “no reasonable likelihood” of convictions.

Ticcioni subdued and handcuffed Williams, a suspect with no criminal record.  Cline and Bleichwehl spent time in the front of the squad car while Williams struggled to breathe in the back.  Two other department members, Thiel and Officer Patrick Coe, were granted immunity from prosecution during the inquest.   Thiel, who testified that he did not complete any reports, said he arrived as Ticcioni and Coe took Williams into custody. Thiel said he thought Williams was “possibly” in medical distress and rubbed Williams’ chest to determine consciousness (known as the sternum rub).  Coe testified he was unable to recall numerous key details about the arrest. Coe said he heard Williams say he could not breathe only one time even though Coe was present at the same time as Thiel.

In a March report explaining his decision not to file charges of failure to render aid by law enforcement, Franke characterized Ticcioni’s takedown of Williams as “textbook.” But he said he believed other officers were careless, used poor judgment and delayed getting Williams the medical help he needed. However, Franke said he could not issue criminal charges because he did not feel he could prove them beyond a reasonable doubt.  Federal prosecutors also declined to issue criminal charges.  The Commission’s ruling mirrors the reasons of the other decisions not to charge even though department rule violations are not crimes and do not require the same standard of proof.

“Once again,” Jonathan Safran, Rose’s attorney, said, “no one in the Milwaukee Police Department is being held accountable for the death of an arrestee who was begging for medical help as a result of not being able to breathe and in obvious medical distress.”

Attorney Robin Shellow, who represents Williams’ mother, said the commission “serves no useful purpose.”

“Milwaukee police officers ignored Williams’ clear cries for help,” she said. “The Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission responded, ‘so what?’”

An assistant medical examiner trusted a police detective’s statement that the arrest of Derek Williams happened “without incident,” leading the pathologist to conclude a year ago that Williams died naturally.  Assistant Medical Examiner Christopher Poulos did not ask for or review any police reports or video during his initial investigation of Williams’ death. Instead, he relied on a detective’s statement.  Milwaukee County Medical Examiner Brian Peterson said Wednesday that Poulos should have gotten the police reports, especially because he knew Williams, 22, had the genetic marker known as sickle cell trait and might be more sensitive to force.  Peterson said Poulos, whom he considers a relatively inexperienced doctor with about five years on the job, did not understand that the police definition of no significant force would differ from a medical definition of force. Had Poulos asked for the written reports, he would have read how officers chased Williams and dragged him out from behind a table. Then, one officer “ended up on top of Williams,” who was face down, and subdued the robbery suspect by pressing a knee into his back while he was handcuffed. As Williams lay on the ground, he complained he couldn’t breathe. When officers got him to his feet, his body went limp.  Had Poulos watched the squad car video, he would have seen Williams in the back seat, handcuffed, pleading for help for nearly eight minutes, eyes rolled back in his head and gasping for air, before losing consciousness. Poulos neither read those reports nor watched the video until he learned about their contents from the Journal Sentinel. He then revised his ruling from natural death to homicide.

Milwaukee medical examiners are not required to read police reports, watch video or obtain other evidence before making a ruling about deaths in police custody. The officer’s written policy on such cases does not even require the chief medical examiner to review rulings by his assistants. Police custody cases have the potential to “challenge public trust,” according to the policy. “Such cases may also at least appear to present conflict of interest issues, particularly when the involved agency is also the investigating agency.”  Poulos’ revised ruling maintains the cause of Williams’ death as sickle cell crisis but changes the manner from natural to homicide due to “flight from and altercation with police.” Homicide in forensic terms means “death at the hands of another,” but does not necessarily mean a crime was committed.

There still remain unexplained injuries from Williams’ autopsy report, such as a broken hyoid bone in Williams’ neck.  Such injuries result in about 1/3 of all strangulation cases and are usually caused by extreme force.  In the video, as Williams begs for help, one of the officers says, “You’re breathing fine,” and “Stop messing around.” Williams struggles to breathe for 7 minutes 45 seconds, and then slumps over, unconscious.  An officer checks his pulse several times, props him up in the seat and walks to a nearby supervisor’s car. Finding no one there, the officer returns, pulls Williams out of the squad car and starts CPR.  At least three minutes pass between the time Williams loses consciousness and the time the officer takes Williams out of the car. Police and paramedics continue CPR for more than 45 minutes before Williams is declared dead at the age of 22.

“They wouldn’t want someone to do that to their child, so why would they do it to mine?” asked Williams’ mother, Sonya Moore. “They just sat back and acted like they didn’t have a soul.”

Williams had been released from jail on a child-support violation just a few hours before he died, according to his family. Records show that he was released after being arrested on loitering, vandalism, and assault.  When he left home with his girlfriend’s father shortly before midnight July 5, the temperature was near 80 degrees.  Officers Jeffrey Cline and Zachary Thoms came upon an attempted robbery near the intersection of Holton and E. Center streets around 12:36 a.m. July 6.  When the suspect – whom officers later determined to be Williams – saw them, he ran. He jumped a chain-link fence, ran through an alley and hid behind a patio table. He was apprehended by two more officers, Patrick Coe and Richard Ticcioni.  When the officers first approached Williams, they observed he was breathing heavy and sweating, and not immediately compliant with being placed under arrest.  Williams did complain that he was having difficulty breathing, according to police documents, Williams “verbally responded appropriately, and appeared to be able to take in oxygen normally and well.”

“The police who waited 15 minutes to begin treatment for Williams did not commit a crime because they did not show reckless disregard for his life,” Prosecutor Chisholm said.

There is also still a question of whether Williams really died due to positional asphyxia, which has been known to kill people in the past who were restrained by police or correctional officers (by handcuffs, in restraints chairs, in beds, etc.).

“It’s simply unconscionable to watch what happens in the back of that squad car,” Safran said.  Williams’ aunt Renee Moore said, “When you seen the video, it was kind of like a nightmare…He was like a fish out of water…His last moments on earth were filled with excruciating suffering…”

Williams’ death isn’t the first controversial death in Milwaukee County in police custody.  In 2001, Mario Mallett died in the back of a police car.  His hands and ankles were cuffed and he was placed in the back.  The officer in the front seat couldn’t see Mallett.  The medical examiner’s office ruled that Mallett died of a heart attack caused by acute exhaustive mania; a rare and controversial condition usually cited in police custody deaths.

Rose, Williams’ girlfriend was the only non-police witness interviewed.  She stated that she saw Williams “going ballistic” and heard him shouting about not being able to breathe.  She told the media that she begged the police to help him, but they threatened to arrest her.  The police placed her in the back of a separate police squad car.  The county prosecutors said they don’t have resources to seek out witnesses when deaths occur in police custody; they rely on those who come forward and police statements.  Another woman came forward stating that she heard Williams tell officers to stop hitting him.  She then saw officers dragging him.  He was hitting his head against the window, saying he can’t breathe,” she said.

Controversy surrounded prosecutor Chisholm’s predecessor E. Michael McCann whose public policy was that inquiries into police custody deaths were not investigative tools, but rather necessary to ease public concerns.  When Chisholm took office many hoped that would change, but Chisholm decided that inquiries were not the proper forum for investigating police custody deaths, instead the prosecution and medical examiner investigate.

  1. Evan says:

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