MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN – After learning a 22-year-old man’s death in police custody had been revised to homicide, a group of leaders met Sunday night to brainstorm ways to mount a community response.
The Journal Sentinel reported Sunday that the Milwaukee County medical examiner’s office has revised its ruling on the death of Derek Williams, who died in Milwaukee police custody in July 2011, from natural to homicide, according to the district attorney’s office.
If Williams had gotten immediate medical attention, he would not have died in the backseat of a squad car while Milwaukee police officers ignored his pleas for help, James Hall, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said Sunday.
Hall and other civil rights and community leaders gathered Sunday at a church on N. 2nd St. to discuss the death.
The group urged everyone in the community to watch the video from the squad car camera showing officers disregarding Williams for more than 7 minutes as he writhes around gasping for air.
In making his initial determination of natural death more than a year ago, Assistant Medical Examiner Christopher Poulos did not review all of the police reports or a squad video recently obtained by the newspaper.
The video shows a handcuffed Williams, his eyes rolled back, gasping for breath and begging for help in the back seat of a Milwaukee police car as officers ignore his pleas. The police reports include key details about Williams’ arrest that the medical examiner didn’t know.
As a result of the new ruling, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm has reopened the investigation into whether criminal charges are warranted against any of the officers involved.
Williams, who had gotten out of jail earlier in the day after being arrested on municipal warrants for loitering, vandalism and assault, fled from police after attempting to rob a couple near the intersection of N. Holton and E. Center streets, according to the reports.
His death shows that change is needed in Milwaukee, said Keith Bailey, of Milwaukee Matters, a local non-proft advocacy group.
Citizens need to let elected officials know: “We can’t take this anymore,” Bailey said. “We will not allow another person to perish the way that Derek Williams Jr. perished in the back of a police cruiser,”
Attorney Jonathan Safran, who represents Williams’ long-term girlfriend and their three young children, said this case is among the worst he’s had.
“The video is one of the most troubling things I have ever seen … it’s simply unconscionable to watch what happens in the back of that squad car.”
Safran said he receives calls daily from people who claim they have been victims of excessive force by the police department and the issue doesn’t get appropriately addressed.
He’s calling on the U.S. attorney’s office to take the case.
“The district attorney’s office is not the agency to be reviewing this. It’s the officers they work with on a daily basis,” Safran said.
Chisholm, the Police Department and the Fire and Police Commission previously had cleared the officers of wrongdoing, largely based on the medical examiner’s earlier ruling of natural death.
In an earlier interview with the Journal Sentinel, Chisholm emphasized that the revised finding does not mean a crime was committed.
In a statement, Milwaukee police Chief Edward Flynn said he did not expect any officers to be criminally charged as a result of the new ruling.