Civil rights lawsuit filed in Derek Williams’ death in police custody

July 6, 2016 GMT

Five years to the day after 22-year-old Derek Williams died in the custody of Milwaukee police, attorneys representing his three children have filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city and the officers involved.

Williams died after begging for his life and telling officers he couldn’t breathe while handcuffed in the back of a squad car in the early morning hours of July 6, 2011.

“His death was a direct consequence of the MPD’s failure to have adequate policies and practices in place concerning an office’s obligation to seek immediate emergency medical attention when a person in his custody exhibits obvious signs of serious physical distress,” according to a news release issued Wednesday by the attorneys.

“While the MPD has subsequently changed its policy with regard to providing emergency medical care, to date, no MPD officer has been held accountable for Mr. Williams’ death,” the release stated.

Williams’ children, ages 5, 6 and 7, and their mother, Sharday Rose, are represented by the Milwaukee firm of Samster, Konkel and Safran and the Chicago-based People’s Law Office.

The initial investigations into Williams’ death, by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, the Milwaukee Police Department and the city’s Fire and Police Commission — all cleared the officers of wrongdoing.

Chisholm reopened the case, named a special prosecutor and sought an inquest after a Journal Sentinel investigation prompted the medical examiner’s office to change its ruling in the death from natural to homicide. In forensic terms, homicide means “death at the hands of another” but does not necessarily mean a crime was committed.

The inquest jury recommended misdemeanor charges of failure to render aid by law enforcement against three officers: Richard Ticcioni, Jeffrey Cline and Jason Bleichwehl. Special Prosecutor John Franke did not charge them, saying he did not think he could prove a case.

Ticcioni put his knee across Williams’ back during the arrest on the 2700 block of N. Buffum St. That’s the first time Williams said he could not breathe, according to inquest testimony from Officer Craig Thimm, also named in the suit.

Williams had been taken into custody on suspicion of robbery after he ran from police. He had gotten out of jail earlier in the day on municipal warrants but had no criminal record.

Cline and Bleichwehl each spent time in the front seat of the squad car as Williams struggled to breathe for nearly eight minutes in the back, a squad video shows. When Williams told Cline he couldn’t breathe, Cline responded: “You’re breathing just fine.”

The police department’s policy at the time stated: “Members shall remain cognizant of any changes in the condition of an arrestee that would require medical treatment. If medical treatment becomes necessary, members shall immediately request medical assistance by telephone or radio.”

After Williams’ death, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn issued an internal memo explaining what medical distress is and directing officers to call paramedics if a prisoner experiences symptoms such as trouble breathing or pain. He also said officers would be required to call for an ambulance whether they believed a prisoner’s complaints or not.