By Cassandra Lans
On Tuesday, May 28, 2013 the U.S. attorney’s office made the decision to not charge three Milwaukee police officers involved with the arrest of Derek Williams who also died while in their custody.
The decision is a duplication of an earlier decision made by state prosecutors, which means that the officers have now been cleared of criminal wrongdoing at every level.
The officers, Richard Ticcioni, Jeffery Cline and Jason Bleichwehl, were also vindicated by two internal Police Department investigations.
These decisions are not sitting well with the African American community in Milwaukee at all. For Black Milwaukeeans, this is beyond Milwaukee’s version of “Rodney King” years ago in Los Angeles. It is beyond that case because, at least King did not die gasping for air to breathe while in police custody.
Federal officials however, will continue to conduct a wide ranging review of whether the U.S. Department of Justice should sue the Milwaukee Police Department for a series of possible civil rights violations, known as a pattern of practice investigation, according to U.S. Attorney James Santelle.
Speaking out against this decision, Alderman Joe Davis stated, “As I reflect on the decision that was announced yesterday regarding the Derek Williams case, I was reminded that the tragic situation that occurred raised an alarm with me. Derek was accused of being involved in a robbery attempt and attempted to flee after law enforcement arrived on the scene (and the rest of the story we know). But what troubles me is why Derek, and other African American males, decide to risk their freedom and lives for a petty crime, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s about economics; or a lack thereof.”
He continued, “I drive through our community and see unemployed African American males hopelessly trying to survive in an economic environment that gives them few options. We, the City of Milwaukee , have created a lack of opportunity for a segment of our population by not addressing our poverty, crime, unemployment, and economic problems with innovativeness and a zealot mentality. I take personal responsibility for the adverse conditions that exist in the City of Milwaukee because I am part of the strategic public/private partnership that involves the role local government.
We must define ourselves by the strength of our supply chain. Our “Human Capital” must not be expendable, but instead must be our competitive advantage. We must address the pain that is lurking in the dark places of our city, and create a shining opportunity of healing and productivity for this and the next generation of African American males. We must, we have to, we have no option but to; for if we don’t?”
He concluded, “ Houston (the City of Milwaukee ), We Have A Problem.” Alderwoman Milele Coggs released the following statement, “The federal investigation into the death in police custody of Derek Williams was perhaps the last best hope for Milwaukeeans who had hoped to see someone held responsible for that tragic, unnecessary loss. With the announcement today by federal prosecutors that charges will not be sought against the three Milwaukee police officers involved, many other community members and I are, of course, very deeply disappointed.
The decision not to seek charges by both federal and local officials will not only further polarize the relations between the Milwaukee Police Department and the community, I feel it shines a light on just how significantly those relations have deteriorated.
I realize that prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s office are constrained by the bounds of the law to prove that officers willfully and unreasonably failed to respond to Derek Williams’ cries for help in the back of that squad car. As a lawyer, I realize what a significant burden of proof that entails. But I do not think anyone who watches the video from that squad car will tell you that officers’ response to Derek’s distress was adequate, and it certainly was not compassionate. The U.S. Attorney’s office and I will have to agree to disagree about whether it was willful.
“Willful” by legal standards or not, that demonstrable lack of compassion drives at the heart of the community-police relations problem in this city, and the racial undertones thereof. It leaves many community members, local leaders and me asking an uncomfortable question—if it had been a young man of a different socio-economic status in the back of that squad car begging for help and gasping for breath, would he have received medical attention?”
And Common Council Willie L. Hines, Jr. stated that prosecutors missed the mark on their decision regarding the Williams’ case. He also released the following statement, “I appreciate the willingness of the Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney and the FBI to examine the Derek Williams case. I commend them on a thorough investigation and the attention they paid to this disturbing case.
I am, however, disappointed with their overall findings. Prosecutors say that this investigation did not reveal evidence that the officers involved were aware of Mr. Williams’s medical condition. This in spite of the fact that Mr. Williams communicated his distress to officers before his death, only to have his cries for help rudely dismissed.
This is truly unacceptable. It lends the appearance that the officers’ failure to respond contributed to Mr. Williams’s death.
Officers take a sworn oath of office to protect and to 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 of the oath they swore. It should not take a citizen’s 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.
Prosecutors may have closed their books on the Derek Williams case, but there is work yet to be done. The Milwaukee Police Department must continue to improve its policies to prevent another tragic incident like this from happening ever again.”
Members of Williams’ family are a bit in shock over the decision. Sonya Moore, Williams’ mother needed to be consoled by her attorney Robin Shellow as she was overcome with tears.
And Attorney Jonathan Safran, who is representing Williams’ girlfriend and children said that his clients felt that the federal government didn’t have the courage to hold someone accountable.
Family members do plan to move forward with civil lawsuits and the entire community will continue to keep an eye on this case as well. However, many in the community are wondering how do you move forward with a police department that has countless accusations of mistreatment of Blacks and other people of color. Community leaders are saying that the City of Milwaukee better figure it out soon, because the way things are now, the future is not looking too promising for a good relationship with MPD.