MILWAUKEE (CN) – A federal judge ruled that a lawsuit filed against Milwaukee police officers involved in the arrest of a man who died at the scene six years ago will go to trial later this month.
Derek Williams, a 22-year-old African-American man with three children, died of sickle cell crisis while being detained by Milwaukee Police Department officers in July 2011.
His minor children and his estate sued the city of Milwaukee and various police officers accused of violating his constitutional rights in the events leading up to his death.
On the evening of July 5, 2011, Williams visited his girlfriend, Sharday Rose, and three children, Tanijah, Derek III and Taliyah. Williams and Rose’s stepfather, Tyrone Mathis, left the home that night to go buy snacks, according to court records.
Shortly after midnight, Williams crossed the street and approached a couple, Samuel Tooke and Zhanna Godkin, who were returning from the Summerfest music festival. Williams allegedly told Mathis he knew the couple.
“Williams did have a mask over his mouth ‘with a sinister smile printed on it, which looked much like the smile of the ‘Joker’ character from the old Batman series.’ He also held a cell phone under his clothing which suggested that he was armed,” according to Friday’s ruling from U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller. “Mathis, however, states that he and Williams never discussed a robbery and saw no indication that Williams intended to rob Tooke and Godkin as he approached them.”
MPD Officers Jeffrey Cline and Zachary Thoms stopped their squad car in the street and Williams ran. Cline ran after him and lost Williams in an alley and began to search nearby yards. Thoms moved the car and two other officers named in the suit, Jason Bleichwehl and Gregory Kuspa, joined the search.
The other officers named in the suit – Richard Ticcioni, Patrick Coe, Robert Thiel, Todd Kaul, Chad Boyack, Craig Thimm and David Letteer – allegedly responded to the scene to set up a containment perimeter.
“At 12:44 a.m., Ticcioni and Coe found Williams hiding under a table in a backyard, curled up in a ball. This was approximately eight minutes after Williams first ran away from Cline. To reach that position, Williams had run about 200 to 300 yards and jump[ed] over a fence,” the ruling states.
Williams reportedly complied with officers’ orders to show his hands. When Ticcioni tried to grab Williams’ arm, his hands slid off because Williams was soaked with sweat, court records show.
Officers Thoms, Kuspa, Cline and Thimm arrived as Ticcioni and Coe detained Williams. Ticcioni flipped Williams onto his backside and put his knee on his back as Coe handcuffed him. After handcuffing him, Ticcioni allegedly remained on top of Williams.
“Williams complained that he could not breathe, so Ticcioni shifted the majority of his weight off of Williams’ back. Ticcioni radioed to dispatch that Williams was in custody, and during that transmission, Williams can be heard stating that he cannot breathe,” the 58-page opinion states. “Ticcioni and Coe searched Williams’ pockets while he was on the ground. They then pulled Williams up to his feet. During this time, Williams repeated that he could not breathe. Once standing, Williams went limp, so Thiel told Ticcioni and Coe to put him back on the ground. Thiel gave this instruction so he could evaluate Williams’ condition and because ‘I don’t want my officers hurting their back holding dead weight.’”
Officers Cline, Kuspa, Thoms, Thimm, Letteer and Kaul began searching the area for a gun they believed Williams had and went back to check on the alleged victims, but Williams’ family argues that “this is no excuse for them to ignore Williams or claim that they could not hear his breathing complaints.”
Kuspa, Coe, Bleichwehl and Ticcioni admitted that they heard Williams complaints but “did not believe that he was having a medical emergency.”
“Once Williams was returned to the ground, Thiel attempted to speak with him. Williams was breathing heavily and sweating, his eyes were closed, and he was unresponsive to Thiel,” Judge Stadtmueller’s ruling states. “Ticcioni felt that Williams was faking distress in order to make it more difficult for officers to remove him from the backyard, so he told Williams to ‘stop messing around.’”
Officer Thiel then performed a “sternum rub” on Williams, which involves rubbing one’s knuckles across a person’s sternum to determine whether the person is truly unconscious.
According to court records, Williams opened his eyes and became responsive. Thiel claims that Williams “said he was ‘just playing around’ with the alleged victims and that they were his friends.”
At this point, Thiel and Coe agreed with Ticcioni’s conclusion that Williams was “simply resisting arrest.”
Ticcioni and Coe brought Williams back to his feet and moved him out of the backyard while he allegedly continued to claim that he could not breathe. On their way out of the backyard, Thiel performed another sternum rub while Williams was standing and then told Ticcioni and Coe to take him out front.
Several people who lived in homes near where Williams was detained say they saw him after his arrest.
Terrie Giles says she saw Williams and could hear someone saying “I can’t breathe,” but couldn’t identify the source of the statement.
Her son, Terrance Giles, also saw Williams and says he heard him complain about being unable to breathe, loudly enough that all of the officers could have heard. He says he heard officers tell Williams to “shut up.”
Giles’ boyfriend, Chauncey Wright, says he “called someone and told them that the police were killing someone, and that this person said they could not breathe,” court records show.
Williams’ children claim that when he was being taken to the squad car, he repeated that he could not breathe and went limp and had to be dragged by officers, who told him to stop “playing games.”
Officer Coe moved a for-sale sign out of the group’s path and while doing so, allegedly let go of Williams, causing him to fall face first on the ground.
The officers say that Williams was not intentionally dropped and that he caused the fall.
After he fell, Ticcioni and Coe allegedly picked him up by his arms and dragged him to the front yard.
Williams’ family claims that during the movement, he continued to complain of difficulty breathing. Ticcioni, Coe and Bleichwehl say they do not recall those complaints.
“Williams’ body was limp and he ‘looked like he was already dead,’” reported Sharon Austin, another neighbor who saw Williams being detained.
But another neighbor, Ricardo Fernandez, claims the opposite was true and that “Williams was taken to the car without difficulty.”
Lachelle Brown, yet another neighbor, called 911 and informed the operator that “Williams was yelling about being unable to breathe and calling for help,” according to the ruling. The operator allegedly said that only police officers on the scene could call for medical help.
Ticcioni says he commanded Williams to get in the back seat of the squad car and helped him in. Williams’ family disputes this and says he was thrown into the vehicle.
Officer Cline activated the video and audio recordings in the police car and the video shows “Williams rocking back and forth moving his mouth as if he was saying something,” court records show.
“According to Plaintiff’s lip-reading expert Consuelo Gonzalez, Williams at one point said ‘I’m gonna die,’” the ruling states.
Rose, Williams’ girlfriend, arrived at the scene and Cline allegedly told her that he had tried to rob a house.
In the squad car, Cline first asked Williams for his name.
Cline asked Williams for his name, but he allegedly repeated that he couldn’t breathe and asked for an ambulance.
Cline left the squad car to help gather evidence and Officer Bleichwehl took his place. By the time Bleichwehl asked for Williams’ name, he was “slumped over in the seat and was non-responsive” and his final actions were “slight jerking movements of his arms,” according to the ruling.
When Bleichwhel noticed that Williams was motionless, he got out of the car, opened the rear door and checked for a pulse and breath, finding neither.
Bleichwhel checked again for a pulse and radioed for help from other officers, one of whom asked for medical assistance, according to court records.
Other officers came to help and switch off giving Williams mouth-to-mouth and chest compressions, but to no avail. He was pronounced dead at 1:41 a.m.
The Milwaukee County Assistant Medical Examiner’s office declared that Williams’ death was a homicide caused by sickle cell crisis “brought about by Williams’ flight from and altercation with the police.”
A hematologist and oncologist testified that he “did not think Williams would have survived even if defendants had taken him to the hospital when they reached the street, instead of putting him in the car.” He added that Williams would not have lasted long enough for doctors to do a blood transfusion, the only sure treatment for sickle cell crisis.
Williams’ children sued Milwaukee and the named officers for wrongful death, arguing they were undertrained and that the “evidence in this case and the recent history of the MPD reveals a ‘widespread and deeply rooted code of silence within the MPD.’”
MPD’s internal investigation into Williams’ death was closed in April 2012 after finding no wrongdoing by any of the officers.
They question the validity of the MPD’s internal investigation into their father’s death which was closed in April of 2012 and “found no wrongdoing by any of the officers.”
On Friday, Judge Stadtmueller denied Milwaukee and the officers’ motion for summary judgment.
“The Court cannot agree with defendants that no reasonable jury could find proximate causation between defendants’ actions and Williams’ death,” Stadtmueller wrote. “Defendants’ position again fails to accept the evidence and reasonable inferences in plaintiffs’ favor. According to [a physician], it was not only possible but likely that Williams could have been saved if paramedics had been summoned earlier. If this is true, defendants were certainly responsible for failing to act. Neither Williams nor anyone else intervened to prevent them from calling for medical assistance, and Williams in fact begged for it repeatedly.”
The ruling states that the “issues in this case must await resolution by the jury at the end of August.” The trial is slated for Aug. 28.
The judge dismissed Officer Boyack from the complaint, saying the plaintiffs agreed to his dismissal.
Timothy Gauerke, a spokesperson for the Milwaukee Police Department, declined to comment on the ruling.