Left to die by Milwaukee cops

Joe Richard reports on the ongoing efforts by the family of Derek Williams and their supporters to hold accountable the officers responsible for Derek's death.

Protesters gather in Milwaukee to demand justice for Derek Williams (Sharlen Moore)Protesters gather in Milwaukee to demand justice for Derek Williams (Sharlen Moore)

ABOUT 80 people gathered in the Riverwest area of Milwaukee on October 14 to protest the 2011 police murder of Derek Williams, a 22-year-old African American man. The march started in Gordon Park and wound its way through the streets to the Fifth District police station, where marchers blocked traffic in a civil disobedience prayer circle in the middle of a busy intersection.

The demonstration included members of various organizations and the surrounding community, including Derek Williams' family, who came together to show their support and let the police know that the case is not over until the officers responsible for Williams' death are held accountable.

In July 2011, Williams was arrested and beaten by a group of officers, who broke the hyoid bone in his neck. He was then left shackled in the back of a police cruiser. Williams struggled to breathe and cried out for help until he died. Williams' family has not let the incident slip from the public's view, going to city officials and then the federal government to demand justice.

Now the case has been included in a federal investigation of widespread abuse by the Milwaukee Police Department. Originally, the medical examiner's office that performed the autopsy on Williams listed the cause of death as "natural causes," but after an investigation by the Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, the death was recently changed to homicide, prompting the Department of Justice to look into it.

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The homicide charge stems from provisions in the Milwaukee Police Department's (MPD) own rules and procedures, which require that police must call for emergency medical assistance as soon as someone in custody shows signs of distress. According to the police protocols:

It cannot be overemphasized that members [officers] shall continually monitor and remain cognizant of the condition of a person in custody, especially when he/she is in restraints...The arrestee may encounter immediate or delayed physical reactions that may be triggered by the change in physical or environmental factors.

The MPD refused to release the squad car's video footage of Williams in custody, but the Williams family was able to obtain a copy and release it to the media. In the course of the disturbing and seemingly endless video, Williams can be seen writhing in the back of the police car, calling for help and saying that he cannot breathe for roughly eight minutes, until he slumps over lifeless in the back seat.

The Milwaukee County Assistant Medical Examiner who performed the autopsy on Williams was Christopher Poulos, and his finding that Williams died of natural causes was based on the belief that Williams died of sickle-cell crisis, which can lead to suffocation in cases of severe distress. But Williams didn't have sickle-cell disease.

Poulos also admitted that he only used the police incident report for a narrative of what happened on the night of Williams' death, even though Williams' hyoid bone was broken.

Because of its location in a person's neck, the hyoid bone requires a tremendous amount of force to fracture and is usually considered evidence of strangulation in murder cases. Given the fact that Williams did not actually have sickle-cell disease and, according to his family, led an active, athletic life, it stretches credibility that his death was caused by anything "natural."

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WITNESSES TO the incident give an account of what happened that contrasts sharply with the story told by Milwaukee police officers.

An anonymous witness, who didn't want to reveal her identity for fear of police retaliation, explained that she saw the incident out of a back window. She said that she heard Williams yell for the police to stop beating him and that she saw numerous officers hitting and kicking Williams before dragging him halfway down the block and putting him in the back of the squad car.

Williams' girlfriend also arrived in time to see Williams in the squad car calling out for help, and then she herself was threatened with arrest, tackled and restrained by police, before being placed in another car.

Williams was out with his girlfriend's father when he encountered the police, who were looking for a suspect related to an attempted robbery that had occurred that same night. According to the police report, Williams saw the police and then jumped a fence to get away. Williams had been released from jail only hours earlier that day, serving a light sentence in a child support case, the only mark on his record.

Some coverage of the case, however, has focused on Williams' "criminal record" and his "upbringing," in a not-so-subtle form of victim blaming.

But given the MPD's documented record of abuse, it's not surprising that Williams was afraid of the police, and that community members in Milwaukee are afraid of retaliation if they give testimony. To take just one example, another man died in the back of a police wagon in 2001 under circumstances bearing a resemblance to the situation that led to Williams' death.

There has been regular harassment and intimidation of community members, including the detention of the brother of Darius Simmons after he was murdered by a neighbor in broad daylight, and the neighbor admitted to the crime. The MPD has also been found to regularly underreport crime in the city (including rape and assault). Then there's the scandal regarding the widespread use of illegal cavity searches of detained suspects.

In order to win justice for Derek Williams and his family, MPD Chief Edward Flynn should be the target of a campaign to have him fired and charged, along with the arresting officers who beat Derek and then let him die. Flynn and the MPD should be made into a political liability for the city of Milwaukee, through mass mobilizations and creative actions to highlight the abuse of power by police and their attempts to cover up their misconduct.

The campaign could even reach across the state of Wisconsin and around the U.S. in order to focus a national spotlight on police brutality in Milwaukee, which is now one of the most segregated and economically devastated cities in America. Activists and organizers across the U.S. should make Derek Williams a household name, just like Trayvon Martin and Rodney King.

And no one should assume that the investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, as welcome as it may be, will be sufficient to get justice for Williams and his family. The notoriously slow pace of the legal system and the real possibility that the investigation may "run out of steam" in the months ahead can only be safeguarded against by a grassroots movement. It won't be easy, but it's the only way to win justice for Derek.