A full range of emotions was on display and calls for Milwaukee police Chief Edward Flynn to resign intensified Thursday as close to 400 people gathered at the Milwaukee Brotherhood of Firefighters Hall for what turned out to be part film screening, part memorial service and part call to action in the wake of the death of Derek Williams. Williams, 22, died in police custody in July 2011.
Recently released squad video shows him suffocating and begging for help in the back seat of a police car as officers ignore his pleas for nearly eight minutes.
Officials at the police department, district attorney's office and the city's Fire and Police Commission all viewed the video months ago and concluded the officers involved did nothing wrong. All reopened their investigations after a Journal Sentinel investigation prompted the Milwaukee County medical examiner's office to change its ruling from natural death to homicide.
The video was released to the Journal Sentinel after 10 months of records requests and negotiations with the city. It was first posted Sunday on JSOnline.
People wept, hugged and shouted as the video was displayed on a large screen Thursday evening.
"They let him die! They can go to jail! They let him die like a dog!" audience members yelled before taking up a chant of, "No justice, no peace!"
The mother of Williams' three young children, Sharday Rose, said the video was a nightmare that forced her to relive her boyfriend's death every time she saw it.
"I want my kids to get some justice for their father," she said. "He shouldn't have died like he did." Williams' cousin, Lashawnda Shumpert, told the crowd she hoped the officers involved would be held accountable.
"Did Derek disrespect an officer?" she asked. "He did not even say a curse word. He called that officer 'Sir' until he took his last breath. I understand police had a job to do, but the evidence clearly shows the Milwaukee police did not do their job."
Among those calling for Flynn to resign was Jonathan Kanter, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"We need to get rid of Police Chief Flynn. But that's not enough," he said to a raucous ovation and shouts of agreement. "We need a federal investigation of the pattern of civil rights abuses by the Milwaukee Police Department. But that's not enough. We need the individuals who displayed this reckless disregard for the life of Derek Williams Jr. to be brought to justice. We need to keep fighting until this cancer of racism . . . is gone from our community."
The Rev. Willie Brisco, president of MICAH, Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope, asked the crowd: "How many of you want to change police chiefs? Don't get angry, get engaged. I will go to the police department and demand change."
James Hall, president of the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP, urged community members to let U.S. Attorney James Santelle know they support a federal civil rights investigation, which already has been urged by Mayor Tom Barrett, a dozen aldermen and other elected officials.
Santelle has said he is weighing both that type of investigation and a federal criminal probe. Flynn and Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm have said they would cooperate with both investigations. Hall also asked those present at Thursday's meeting to lobby for systemic change, including human rights commissions at the city, county and state levels. Hall and the NAACP also would like to see the Fire and Police Commission reformed into "a real, independent body" with subpoena powers and "not just a body that is there to rubber stamp things," Hall said.
Outrage and calls for reform have resonated throughout the city since the public release of the video and police reports not initially reviewed by the medical examiner, which describe how officers chased Williams and dragged him out from behind a table. Then, one officer "ended up on top of Williams," who was facedown, and subdued the robbery suspect by pressing a knee into his back while he was handcuffed. As Williams lay on the ground, he complained he couldn't breathe. When officers got him to his feet, his body went limp.
City and county officials plan to meet with the medical examiner Friday.
A bipartisan group of state legislators plans to introduce legislation that would mandate new training and education standards for police officers.
Chisholm will appoint a special prosecutor to re-examine the case and convene an inquest to re-evaluate whether criminal charges should be issued. A homicide ruling by the medical examiner means "death at the hands of another" and does not mean a crime was committed. To prove the crime of homicide, prosecutors must prove intent to kill, reckless disregard for life or negligent disregard for life while operating a firearm or a vehicle. They also could charge a lesser crime.
Flynn has declined repeated interview requests about the case since March. He again declined to be interviewed Thursday.
At a news conference earlier this week, he said the department would assemble a board to review critical incidents such as in-custody deaths and would implement new training on recognizing and responding to medical distress in prisoners.
On Charlie Sykes' radio show Wednesday, Flynn addressed the community reaction by saying: "My big concern is those folks who need police service but tend to be suspicious of police are troubled by this and concerned that it is indicative that the police department is callous or uncaring about their concerns. That is an emotional but a very real issue. We must address that."
(c)2012 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel