Inquest into 2011 Death of Man in Police Custody Awaited by Skeptical Milwaukee Community

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Derek Williams' family and community activists at annual Martin Luther King Jr. event

Derek Williams' family and community activists at annual Martin Luther King Jr. event

Milwaukee, Wisc.

As next week’s official inquest into the death of Derek Williams approaches, skeptical community members and activists say they don’t trust the Milwaukee Police Department. The inquest is a civil legal procedure that could determine whether criminal charges are brought against any police officers in Williams’ death while in police custody — one of two such deaths that have caused protests and angry calls for police reforms.

Williams, 22, died while handcuffed in the back of a Milwaukee police squad after being arrested on July 6, 2011. Williams, the father of three young children, experienced breathing difficulties after being forcibly arrested as a suspect after an attempted robbery. He asked police for help as he began to have breathing problems but his pleas were ignored for almost 10 minutes until he lapsed into unconsciousness and died. The medical examiner’s office initially ruled his death to be the result of natural causes, but the death was ruled a homicide last September, more than a year after the incident, after a Milwaukee newspaper obtained police video showing him gasping desperately for breath in the back of the squad car.

Although Williams’ death has sparked months of protests and even though the cause of his death has been changed to a finding of homicide, his family says it has yet to be contacted or to receive an apology from Police Chief Edward Flynn or Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Community poster demanding police accountability in the death of Derek Williams. Click on image to find a link to disturbing video of Williams gasping for breath while handcuffed in a police car. The video, obtained by The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, will be shown to jurors in next week's inquest into Williams' death.

The inquest is set to begin on Monday. The FBI has opened a separate investigation and the U.S. Justice Department also has said it intends to scrutinize police practices and alleged misconduct in Milwaukee, which has a long history of tension between African-Americans and the police.

The inquest was requested by Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm, who asked a special prosecutor to conduct the inquest after his office initially stated it would not recommend charges against the officers in question. The inquest will be conducted by attorney John Franke, a former Milwaukee Circuit Court judge.

A jury of six and the presiding judge will ultimately recommend whether criminal charges should be sought. This proceeding does not guarantee that any charges would be filed, which would be determined by the District Attorney’s office.

This type of court procedure has not led to any recommendation to pursue criminal charges in recent memory. John Safran, an attorney representing Williams’ children, said this type of proceeding, as well as other avenues to hold officers accountable for misconduct, typically do not lead to disciplinary action or criminal charges.

Other avenues of accountability include internal review by the Police and Fire Commission. The Jeanine Tracy case in December, in which an officer punched and pulled Tracy by her hair from a squad car while in custody, marked the first time that the Police and Fire Commission overturned a decision to reinstate an officer after community members had packed a hearing room to protest the incident.

The officers in question may face federal criminal charges from the U.S. attorney’s office, which launched its own investigation into Williams’ death in part due to community outrage. Safran said there could be a federal civil suit against the individual officers for damages to Williams’ estate.

The initial medical examiner’s ruling was that Williams had died due to a “sickle cell crisis” in which his red blood cells suddenly were unable to carry enough oxygen to his vital organs. The assistant medical examiner who issued that finding has since resigned, under pressure from community activists and outside experts who said that Williams carried a trait for sickle cell but did not have the disease and could not have died from it. They also point to a broken bone in his neck that they believe shows that excessive force was used on Williams while he was being arrested. Both issues are expected to be part of the inquiry at the Williams inquest.

As The UpTake has previously reported, a community voice of opposition has been raised against Police Chief Edward Flynn for a pattern of departmental misconduct including illegal strip searches, sexual assault, violent misconduct and the death of the two men who have died while in police custody.

Mayor Barrett and Chief Flynn said they are working to build a strong relationship between the Milwaukee Police Department and community members. Both Barrett and Flynn emphasized the need for community members to trust the police department and say they are doing everything within their power to make the relationship work.

“This police department has extraordinary support in every segment of Milwaukee,” Chief Flynn said when The UpTake interviewed him during a recent summit on gun violence in Minneapolis. “We are judged by the totality of our work and how we respond to critical instances.”

Barrett, interviewed on the same occasion, said his office is working with the U.S. attorney, the Urban League and the NAACP in Milwaukee, adding that he has talked to every segment of Milwaukee communities to ensure a good relationship.

However, Maeleen Jordan, Derek WIlliams’ aunt, says she — with the support of community group Occupy the Hood — has tried unsuccessfully several times to meet with Barrett. Every time, they have made it only as far as speaking with Barrett’s staff, who Jordan suspects has lied about the Mayor being available when they have gone to his office.

“He [Barrett] is a piss poor mayor to not acknowledge the victims of murder in his city or their families,” said Jordan. “Not only has he not given a formal apology to us, he has not met with any of the affected families of James Perry (the other suspect who died in police custody), Darius Simmons (a 13-year-old boy shot to death by an elderly neighbor) or Jeanine Tracy.”

Williams’ family spoke at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day event held at St. Francis of Assisi Church on the north side of Milwaukee on Jan. 21. Williams’ aunt, Shawnda Shumpert, read a powerful statement on behalf of the family regarding Williams’ death, police brutality and Chief Flynn.

“The chief of police himself never even sent his condolences,” Shumpert said. “Never told a mother that has lost a child at the hand of his officers that he is sorry. Appeared on television with such arrogance and lack of remorse, no empathy whatsoever, as if the mother herself had done something wrong. People, our officers are not acting as officers.”

Sonya Moore, Derek WIlliams’ mother, echoed Shumpert’s message.

“I would like to tell Chief Flynn, if it was one of your kids, and Tom Barrett also, if it was one of your kids, would you take this long to have justice,” she asked. “If it was any of your family members, would you want justice?”

Occupy the Hood has been leading weekly marches for the past four months for Williams, as well as for other victims of police brutality and misconduct. Khalil Coleman, of Occupy the Hood, says the known cases of police misconduct are only the ones that get leaked out, and that there are many more instances that must be dealt with.

“There is the seen and the unseen,” he says. “There are three or four cars deep in neighborhoods and they jump out at people, there is no check and balance. There is overwhelming patrolling and police presence in certain neighborhoods. We have to strengthen our own communities, that is the biggest challenge.”


Tracey Pollock

Tracey Pollock, a native of River Falls, Wis., studied journalism at UW-River Falls and finished her education at UW-Milwaukee with a focus in sociology. She is interested in covering social justice issues and shedding light on issues in a way that corporate media will not undertake. Pollock lives in Milwaukee, where generations of her family have resided. She enjoys the local music scene, bicycling and camping.

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