Derek Williams died in the back of a Milwaukee Police squad car. As he struggled to breathe, two officers spent time in the vehicle. They heard him say he couldn’t breathe and they ignored him. He lost consciousness and they didn’t call for medical assistance until four minutes later. His breathing difficulties are thought to have stemmed from one of the officers kneeling into his back as he lay prone on the pavement. But according to state and now federal officials, the officers did nothing wrong.
Williams was killed in July 2011, but it has taken this long to get any definitive answers on whether or not the officers involved would be held accountable. The answer is no, not on any level. They will not face state charges—neither felonies nor the misdemeanors recommended by an inquest jury. They won’t face federal charges either. And as of yet, they have not faced any departmental disciplinary action.
“Officers take a sworn oath of office to protect and serve. Yet these officers failed to render aid while a citizen begged for help, gasped for air and clung to life, ignoring his pleas in a direct contravention to the oath they swore,” said Common Council President Willie L. Hines in a statement. “It should not take a loss of consciousness to get police officers to do their jobs, because by then, as may very well have been the case with Derek Williams, it can be too late.”
The most recent decision in not holding the officers accountable came from federal investigators, who said that in order to bring civil rights charges against the officers, they had to determine their violations of his rights were “willful”. They determined that though they were “tragic and alarming,” they were not willful.
When a man is struggling to breathe and says he is struggling to breathe, and you ignore his pleading for his life, isn’t that a willful disregard?
Williams was a robbery suspect at the time of his arrest. He had no criminal history, though he had been in jail earlier that day for unpaid tickets. When the police attempted to arrest him again, he ran about a block and a half. During the arrest, one officer had his knee across William’s back, a tactic that can cause respiratory distress. He was put in the back of the squad car where he struggled and died.
The multiple decisions not to charge William’s captors will have a resounding effect on police relations in the city of Milwaukee, and truthfully across the country. The police have no right to be your judge, jury and executioner—no matter what crime you are accused of.