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Milwaukee PD Suspect Dies, Feds May Investigate

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The U.S. Attorney in Milwaukee says he's considering looking into a possible pattern of civil rights abuses by the Milwaukee Police Department. A video shows an African-American man in police custody pleading for help, and police scolding him. The man later died.


Some people in Milwaukee are asking about a possible pattern of civil rights abuses by the city's police, and they have requested a U.S. Justice Department investigation. Their request comes after a video surfaced this week showing an African-American man dying while in police custody. For several minutes the officers doubted the man's calls for help.

We should warn you this story contains sound that many listeners may find disturbing. It's going to last a little more than three minutes. Here's Chuck Quirmbach of Wisconsin Public Radio.

CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: On July 6 of last year, Milwaukee patrol officers arrested robbery suspect Derek Williams, Jr. after chasing him and pressing a knee across his back. The officers handcuffed Williams and put him in the rear seat of a police car, while an officer sat in the front seat working on a report of the incident. A video recording from a camera installed in the police vehicle shows Williams gasping for breath and asking for help.


DEREK WILLIAMS: I can't breathe, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) You're just playing games.

QUIRMBACH: A few minutes after Williams was told he was just playing games, he slumped down on the back seat and appeared to lose consciousness. A few minutes after that, one of the officers sensed that Williams was not faking physical distress and tried to revive Williams, calling him sir.



QUIRMBACH: Eventually police performed CPR on Williams, but he died. The Milwaukee County medical examiner's office has now looked at the video and recently changed Derek Williams' cause of death. It was natural causes related to sickle cell crisis. Now it's a homicide. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm says that doesn't necessarily mean the patrol officers engaged in criminal misconduct, just that another person took part. Still, Chisholm is asking an outside prosecutor to conduct a public inquest.

JOHN CHISHOLM: Any time new information or a new conclusion is reached, we have an obligation to revisit all of the information.

QUIRMBACH: Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn says he endorses the outside review. He says the patrol officers may have missed some signals about Williams' health in the squad car. But Flynn says officers often hear that the people they arrest aren't feeling well.

EDWARD FLYNN: I think it's important to recognize a reality of the work of our police officers. When they have recently been pursuing a robbery suspect and have arrested that individual after a brief struggle, it is not unusual for those suspects to complain of shortness of breath or to complain about how they feel.

QUIRMBACH: Flynn says Milwaukee police have already changed some training procedures and will be quicker to call for medical help if someone in custody reports feeling ill. The U.S. attorney in Milwaukee says he's considering asking the FBI to probe the case. And, James Santelle says, he's also mulling a wider look at a possible pattern of police abusing Milwaukee citizens over the years. Milwaukee Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Moore says she'd support the broader civil rights investigation.

REPRESENTATIVE GWEN MOORE: I do think that the city has seen some very unfortunate patterns, and not just the city, the nation. And it's a very unfortunate, almost indelible blemish on our community. And if, in fact, this is part of some sort of pattern, I think that it ought to be investigated as such.

QUIRMBACH: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, whose community could be further rocked by a federal probe of the police department, says he's told the U.S. attorney to do what he thinks is right.

For NPR News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee.

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