MPD Chief Ed Flynn on Derek Williams’ Death
Improved training, but questions remain about officers’ actions
It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn.
He’s had to defend his officers’ conduct in the in-custody death of Derek Williams, the U.S. Attorney’s office has begun investigating the department, four officers were named in a criminal complaint alleging they were involved in illegal strip searches, and questions have been raised about how MPD officers treated the mother of a dying teen who had been shot by a neighbor.
Despite the backing of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and the Fire and Police Commission, some community leaders have called for Flynn’s immediate resignation.
But Flynn said he’s staying put and argued that the MPD’s actions are benefiting the city—especially Milwaukee’s African-American residents.
“We believe we’ve saved lives,” Flynn said, pointing to the city’s reduced murder rate during his tenure.
Flynn stopped in the Shepherd offices last week to discuss the Williams case, the strip-search allegations and why he should keep his job. In this excerpt, Flynn discusses Williams’ death in custody, but you’ll find more of the interview on the Daily Dose blog at www.expressmilwaukee.com.
Shepherd: So, is it true that you hadn’t watched the video of Williams dying in the back of the squad car until recently. Is that true?
Flynn: Yes. Let’s not forget something that is very important. For a year, this was a natural death. I was presented with a death in custody in which the coroner had ruled a natural causes death. I don’t conduct internal affairs investigations. I don’t review all of their files. I expect them to do a professional job. And in a circumstance where the cause of death was considered natural causes, there was no reason to look at the tape, for me. We have tapes of incidents where an officer affirmatively did something. The officers didn’t do anything in this situation. As I said, it was presented to me as a natural causes death. That was the official ruling.
Shepherd: According to your testimony last night in front of the Fire and Police Commission, the MPD has changed its training on responding to sickle cell crisis and respiratory distress. But Derek Williams also had a broken bone in his neck that could have contributed to his death.
Flynn: No. The medical examiner said specifically no. [Williams had] a hyoid fracture, which is a small bone in the front of your neck that has nothing to do with—nobody has ever died from a hyoid fracture in their neck. That can indicate a number of things. It could indicate that somebody was choked. It could indicate that somebody was intubated, which Derek Williams was. It can indicate that somebody ran into something and hit themselves in the neck. He was pursued, climbed a fence, fell off the fence and hid.
The medical examiner, even in the second report he filed, still ruled it a natural causes death. There is no new information in the second report that wasn’t in the first. Every observation in the second report is identical to the observations in the first report. The difference is he concluded that as a result of a pursuit and struggle, his sickle cell crisis was triggered.
Shepherd: Where does homicide come in?
Flynn: Homicide is a term of art in the medical examiner’s report meaning that there was human intervention that was connected to the death. That’s all that it means. It does not mean that somebody committed a murder, doesn’t mean that somebody was negligent, doesn’t mean that somebody did something wrong. It means that there was a human intervention related to the death. In this case, foot pursuit after a robbery and a brief struggle while being handcuffed certainly is a physical intervention that he linked to the triggering of his preexisting medical condition.
Shepherd: So how did he break that bone in his neck?
Flynn: We don’t know.
Shepherd: How many folks in your custody have broken that bone?
Flynn: I have no idea.
Shepherd: Do you think it played a role in his death or his difficulty breathing?
Flynn: You can talk to a medical expert, all right? A broken hyoid bone is not causing death. It is an indication that something happened. It doesn’t break itself. But in all of the examination of that body, there were no indications in that report that the body exhibited any signs of physical abuse. All of the observations of the abrasions and contusions to his body were ruled by the medical examiner were consistent with the pursuit and being picked up off the ground and being handcuffed.
Shepherd: But the officer told the medical examiner that Williams was arrested without incident.
Flynn: There was someone standing there who was a homicide investigator, not one of the arresting officers, who basically said he was arrested without incident. When you read the report, the officers—and you can choose to believe this or not believe it—but my experience is that officers using significant force in an arrest go on at some length about the struggle that required their use of force.
The report written by these two officers said we had about a ten-second struggle. He resisted the handcuffs being put on him and I had to put my knee on his back. We got the handcuffs on. He started to slip around a little more and I put his knee back on his back again. He stopped struggling and we got him off the ground.
Nobody paints a picture of a big fight. Nobody paints a picture of having to use any form of blunt-force trauma or any form of police defensive tactics. The officers said it was ten seconds. To a homicide detective, a ten-second struggle is not an incident. So yeah, that’s a truthful statement as far as we can tell.
Shepherd: Was use of force report filed?
Flynn: No. No. Because there was no force used. Putting handcuffs on is not considered use of force. Stabilizing somebody on the ground with your knee is not considered use of force. Use of force is punching somebody out. Using a baton. Using your stun gun. Using your firearm. Using your [pepper] spray. Choking somebody. Those are all considered uses of force that have to be documented.
Shepherd: Looking back, is there anything different that you’d do in this case?
Flynn: We’ve already taken steps to do things differently. We’ve changed the training protocol. Our current medical training exceeds that required by the state. There’s no training in the state that talks about sickle cell crisis. In fact, nobody has any training on it because it’s a rare event. The officers failed to diagnose a rare event that this hyperventilating suspect that they just chased and arrested was in medical crisis. They didn’t recognize it. If you look at the tape, listen to the tape, he was never treated disrespectfully. A lot of people don’t realize that no one officer was in the car the whole time. One officer was in the front seat for about three and a half minutes and got out to work on the scene. And another officer got in and started working on his computer reports. It’s clear to me watching that tape that they simply didn’t believe him. If you can talk, you can breathe. That’s a common understanding of all officers dealing with a crisis.
For more excerpts from the Shepherd’s conversation with Flynn on strip search allegations and community relations, go to the Daily Dose blog.