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Law

Death in the lockup

Lawsuits question what happens when Detroit prisoners ask for medical care.

Mildred Brazil died last year at the 13th Precinct.
Felicia Wilson, Larry Bell's fiancee, with Bell and their son.
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Published 9/15/1999

On an October evening in 1997, Larry Bell stood inside an eastside Detroit market with his eyes on the cashier, who was clearing $914 from the register for the daily cash drop. As she pulled the money from the drawer, Bell reached over the counter and grabbed it. Startled, the cashier turned to see Bell holding the money in his right hand and a gun in his left. As he dashed for the exit, Bell tripped over a grocery clerk. He scrambled to his feet as the store owner chased him and his accomplice to their car. Bell looked at the owner, laughed and sped away.

He didn’t get far. The store owner wrote down the license number of Bell’s white Pontiac. The next day two Detroit police officers brought him into the 1st Precinct.

After confessing to the robbery, Bell told two sergeants that he was a heroin addict and had used the drug the morning of his arrest. About 60 hours after Bell was taken into custody, he was found unconscious in his cell. A half-hour later he was pronounced dead at Detroit Receiving Hospital. The courts – and the police – are still determining who bears the responsibility for his death.

According to police records and court documents, the last hours of the heroin addict’s life went like this:

On Oct. 3 at 1:15 p.m., officers placed Bell in a holding cell on the ninth floor of the 1st Precinct, where prisoners await arraignment. By 9:50 the next morning, Bell was ill. The cell block ledger, a daily log of prisoner activity maintained by detention officers, notes that he "requested medical attention for spitting up blood."

Three hours later, Bell was pulled from his cell and forced to participate in a lineup. According to other prisoners in the lineup room, he was unable to sit upright on a bench and asked to go to the hospital.

Officers deny that Bell complained of being ill; they say Bell was standing before and after the lineup and walked back to his cell without assistance. They also said they threatened Bell with additional charges when he resisted participating in the lineup.

Back in his cell, Bell vomited repeatedly, witnesses later told homicide investigators. The retching did not prevent several officers from again retrieving Bell from his cell around 4 p.m. for a photo lineup. Officers who conducted the second lineup said Bell did not appear ill. But Sgt. Melvin Williams said in a sworn deposition that he overheard one officer say he had to hold Bell’s head up to take the photo; according to his testimony, Williams remarked that it was obvious that Bell should have been taken to a hospital.

Cries for help

"I saw the man lying on the bench, phlegm on the floor, reddish color vomit. All of his fluid and vomit was running out in the hallway under the cell door. I asked him what he was on. He said he was shooting (heroin)," Leonard Lee Adams Jr. said in a sworn deposition taken as part of a lawsuit Bell’s family filed against the city of Detroit and eight police department staff. Adams was a prisoner at the time and said he told the supervising detention officer, Ray Johnson, that Bell was suffering from withdrawal and needed medical help. Johnson replied, "To hell with that," and walked away, according to Adams.

Aaron Grisby, the 1st Precinct elevator operator, said during his deposition that he overheard a similar comment. According to Grisby, a detention officer told Johnson that Bell "is really sick, he’s laying in his own vomit, he needs to go to the doctor." Grisby said that Johnson replied, "Fuck that dope fiend, let him die." It wasn’t Johnson’s first derogatory comment about a drug-addicted prisoner, according to Grisby: "I had often heard him say negative stuff about people who use drugs, like crackheads, negative stuff like that."

A fellow officer recalled similar comments.

Detention officer Lee Minter said in a deposition that in 1995, when he told Johnson that a prisoner was suffering from withdrawal and was ill, he replied, "I hope he dies."

"It did come across to me that … certain prisoners … that did have drug problems and that were, I’ll say alcohol related or (on) drugs, he did have a disdain for," said Minter.

Johnson denied making all the above statements in a sworn deposition. Johnson declined to talk to the Metro Times and directed all questions to his attorney, Andrew Bean.

Bean said his client "heard Bell throw up one time and as a good supervisor should, he went back and checked on him and the cell was clean and Bell was resting comfortably … and found no signs of distress on subsequent visits."

Bean also said that Johnson has sent many prisoners to the hospital in the past and does not have a track record of denying them medical help. He added that Johnson was only on duty for part of Bell’s detention: "A lot of others were on duty and to make (Johnson) be the fall guy is inappropriate."

Another officer said that he himself checked on Bell every 15 minutes.

However, detention officer Dannie Shields said he told Johnson Bell was ill. He says Johnson instructed Shields to watch Bell, but that he was not sending Bell to the hospital right away. About five hours after these alleged instructions, Bell was found "unresponsive" in his cell – about two-and-a-half days after his arrest.

Officers tried to resuscitate Bell and sent him to Detroit Receiving Hospital where the 46-year-old man was pronounced dead. The medical examiner’s report says that Bell died of "mitral valve prolapse"; his heart gave out. The report also lists "chronic intravenous drug abuse" as a contributing cause of death.

Carlton Couch, who was in custody along with Bell, said in a sworn deposition that he heard Bell vomiting repeatedly for hours. After Couch was released from jail, he learned from two officers that Bell had died. Couch said that one officer said to the other "that the only reason why (Bell) didn’t go to the hospital is because … they thought he was faking it, it wasn’t worth their time to go down there and do the paperwork for nothing."

Couch said he was so disturbed that he contacted a local television station to share what he had witnessed. But he says he never heard back.

"That was just so bad," he said. "I didn’t know the man. I cried."

More corpses

"Are you outraged?"

This is the question to attorney David Robinson, who represents Bell’s family in their civil suit against the city.

Eliciting sympathy for Bell isn’t easy. The man was a career criminal with a record stretching back three decades. He was a chronic heroin user who stole and at times was armed. It is hard to view him as anything other than a menace to society.

Even the snapshot his family provided the Metro Times evokes an outlaw. Bell stands smiling, his arm around an also smiling female friend, a handgun tucked in his pants. So Robinson doesn’t expect the Bell case to elicit much emotion, yet he thinks that it should. Neither Bell’s character nor his cause of death are relevant in this case, Robinson contends.

"He could have died of an ingrown toenail," said the attorney. "The point is, they didn’t get him help."

According to police department procedures, each precinct is equipped with two "detoxification/safety" cells for high-risk prisoners who are suicidal, mentally ill or in need of detoxification from alcohol or drugs. Prisoners who exhibit symptoms such as slurred speech, dilated pupils or vomiting are to be assigned to one of these cells and checked every 15 minutes, or transported to Detroit Receiving Hospital.

Even if Bell was checked every 15 minutes, as one officer said he was, Robinson maintains that Bell should have been sent to the hospital. "They can’t play God," he said. "They have a written policy and have a duty to Larry Bell, and they failed to live up to that duty, and Larry Bell dies. They got a problem."

Bell’s death is not the department’s only problem. At his Southfield office, Robinson leafed through a thick white binder containing photos of others who died while in police custody.

There is Mildred Brazil who, according to the county medical examiner’s report, died of heart failure while locked up at the 13th Precinct. One photo shows her lying face down on the floor of a jail cell with her hands slightly curved from rigor mortis. Robinson represents her daughter in a lawsuit pending against the city and several officers. Brazil, who worked as a librarian, was arrested last year for allegedly threatening her boyfriend with a knife and stealing money from him; she was drinking at the time. After her arrest, the 61-year-old woman was placed in a cell with four other prisoners; three of them said in witness statements that Brazil complained of chest pains and shouted for help to officers who walked by; the other prisoner said Brazil did not ask for help. One prisoner said that an officer told Brazil to "shut up," said he was on his way to the cell to check on her, but never showed.

Several officers said in witness statements during the investigation of Brazil’s death that she was not ill. One officer said he checked on her every 30 minutes, she seemed well, and "at no time did anyone call out for help." Another said that Brazil was happy and did not complain of being sick when her daughter visited.

But a male prisoner, whose cell was nearby, said in his statement that he heard Brazil complain about her chest; he said he heard another woman shout that Brazil was having a heart attack, but no one came to her aid.

That night Brazil’s cellmates offered her the relative comfort of the only bench in the cell. During the night, she fell on a prisoner lying on the floor, who said she woke and heard Brazil moan and then appear to sleep. Early the next day, the prisoners tried to wake Brazil who was still on the floor. When they couldn’t rouse her, they shouted for the officers who called emergency medical services. Brazil was pronounced dead at the lockup.

In Robinson’s collection of evidence photos, Maude Patrick is lying on a cement block at the 9th Precinct where the medical examiner’s reports said she died of "a seizure disorder due to drug withdrawal syndrome." The photo is a sharp contrast to the one of her standing with her two daughters who both appear to be no older than 10. Patrick was arrested July 8, 1995, for prostitution. Police records show that she told an officer that she was a heroin addict and was experiencing withdrawal symptoms. This officer reported this to her supervisor and also said that Patrick was vomiting, according to court records. One prisoner whose cell was near Patrick’s said that he heard her ask to go to the hospital. On July 9, Patrick was found dead in her cell. Robinson, who represented her family in that lawsuit against the city, said the case was settled for about $300,000.

Robinson closed the white binder containing photos of these and three others he has obtained information about.

"These people were not convicted," said Robinson, who was a Detroit police officer for 13 years before becoming a lawyer. They were in holding cells waiting to go to trial, he said. "That makes it worse."

No discipline

Inspector William Rice, a 30-year veteran of the Detroit Police Department, has been investigating homicides involving officers since 1982. Rice stated in a sworn deposition in 1996 that in that time more than 20 prisoners died while in police custody. Rice testified that he had no knowledge of any officer being disciplined in connection with a prisoner’s death – even, in cases such as Bell’s, where the investigation concluded that "there were indications of maybe some rule and regulation violations."

(Johnson said in a sworn deposition that he was not disciplined.)

Robinson points to Rice’s deposition where he states that inmate requests to go to the hospital are not necessarily accommodated.

Robinson: What if a person says I want to go to the hospital because I don’t feel well, but there is no other signs of injury, does that S.D.F.O. (supervising detention facility officer) mandate say to take them to the hospital pursuant to the Detroit Police Officers rules and regulations?

Rice: I don’t believe it’s in there, no.

Rice goes on to say that whether an inmate is sent to the hospital depends on the discretion of the officer in charge.

Robinson: There is no mandate that anytime a person has to go to the hospital, they go to the hospital?

Rice: Correct.

Robinson: So, there is a degree of discretion that (the) Detroit Police Department gives to the D.F.O. (detention facility officer) and the S.D.F.O., as it relates to whether or not the person goes to the hospital; is that correct?

Rice: There is discretion, yes.

But Rice’s statement contradicts Detroit Chief of Police Benny Napoleon’s interpretation of department procedures. In an interview with the Metro Times, Napoleon said that "if someone comes in suffering from withdrawal, complaining that they are ill, that person should be taken to the hospital and treated by a physician." Napoleon said that anytime an inmate requests to go to the hospital, "They have to be taken." And when the Metro Times described the alleged details surrounding Bell’s illness, Napoleon said: "If he was sick, sick as you say, he should have been taken to the hospital and there is absolutely no question about it. Anyone who did not do that is clearly in violation of department policy."

Commander Micheal Falvo oversees disciplinary cases within the department. In a letter to the Metro Times, Falvo wrote that Michigan law and collective bargaining agreements preclude him from divulging specific information regarding employees’ disciplinary records. But he also wrote that "disciplinary action was undertaken in instances where the investigation disclosed that an employee failed to act in accordance with legal department requirements. No discipline was administered, of course, in those instances where an investigation determined that there was no misconduct."

The records

To Robinson, the policy was clearly violated, and no one was disciplined for the same reason that Bell was denied medical treatment: He was just a junkie. Had Bell been wealthy or well-educated, the department would have treated him differently, contends Robinson.

Napoleon strongly disagrees. "Everybody’s life is worth something. Everybody is somebody’s child. … To deny a person medical treatment is unconscionable," he said.

But Robinson said that the police department’s poor record keeping regarding those who died in custody is evidence of indifference. Robinson requested files on all those who died between 1992 and 1997, the five-year period before Bell’s death. Rice wrote in response: "Such information, as in your request, is not readily available. … The homicide files are not categorized when stored. The process of retrieving the files requested would be cumbersome and time consuming, with no guarantee that many files would be recovered."

The police department eventually provided Robinson with a list of 17 people, including Bell, who died between 1992 and 1997. In light of Rice’s letter, Robinson suspects that the list is incomplete.

The Metro Times reviewed medical examiner reports regarding these 17 deaths and found that three people died of heart failure (including Bell, but not Brazil who died in 1998), one died of diabetic attack, one died of heroin withdrawal, four committed suicide, four were arrested and immediately taken to the hospital. Reports could not be found for three of the deceased. Those are out of hundreds of thousands of individuals taken into police custody over those years. Last year, for instance, police records show that over 106,000 people were taken into police custody

(In comparison, Nancy Mouradian, chief of staff for the Wayne County Sheriff’s office, says that the county jails about 36,000 a year and between 1996 and 1999 had 11 deaths, one a suicide and ten of natural causes.)

Robinson said that if there were a pattern of inmates dying in precinct jail cells, the department would not know it because they don’t keep accurate records. "If the Detroit Police Department says, ‘We should never have stuff like this happen again,’ statistics should be kept to avoid this from happening in the future," he said.

But Napoleon said that if there were a pattern of inmates dying, "We would know that, clearly. I would know that."

He said that when a prisoner dies, in most instances, a review board made up of commanders and inspectors investigates. Napoleon reviews the records for each investigation.

But there are instances when the review board does not investigate a prisoner death, Napoleon said, for instance when a possible procedural violation exists. And if a prisoner death involves possible criminal violations, the investigation is taken over by Internal Affairs and the homicide unit.

"The board of review is convened strictly to look at a violation of department policy," said Napoleon. "Homicide and Internal Affairs are looking at criminality." If Internal Affairs is investigating a death, Napoleon says, he would not review these records.

The bottom line, then, is that there is no one location containing the files of all those prisoners who die while in custody.

According to Robinson, Internal Affairs is investigating Bell’s death, which is causing a stir in the department. He says that when a prisoner at the 1st Precinct requests medical care, they now are taken to the hospital immediately.

"It’s changing," he said, with a heavy sigh. And if the police department wants to avoid sending prisoners to the hospital needlessly, Robinson said, the solution is simple. "Do what the county does," he said. "They have a nurse on staff to determine who does not need to go. If the city doesn’t want to hire a nurse, train the (officers) so they have medical knowledge. Train them to be paramedics."

Robinson said real change will come when the department treats everyone with dignity. He reflected on his own experience as a cop: "You have to make sure you treat people you deal with on the street like human beings … just treat people with respect."

 

Not an isolated incident

"Fuck that dope fiend, let him die."

According to an elevator operator’s sworn deposition, those were the words of a Detroit Police jail guard when informed that prisoner Larry Bell was lying in his own vomit and needed to see a doctor.

Bell, a longtime heroin addict, may indeed have deserved the "dope fiend" appellation. Whether he deserved to die of heart failure in a puddle of his own puke after hours of retching and begging to be taken to the hospital is at the core of a lawsuit his family has filed against the city.

It is not an isolated incident.

Since 1992, at least 17 people have died while in police custody, most of them in lockups. The words "at least" are important: According to a letter written by homicide investigator William Rice to an attorney representing Bell’s family, the department doesn’t keep track of prisoner deaths.

Bell’s isn’t the only death to have resulted in a lawsuit. Three suits filed against the city by the families of prisoners who died while in custody have been settled in the last three years. Two of those suits cost the city a total of $500,000. Terms of the third settlement have not been disclosed.

Two more cases, including Bell’s, are still in litigation.

Though Detroit Chief of Police Benny Napoleon says that department policy requires officers to send sick prisoners to the hospital, sworn statements and other evidence generated by the lawsuits indicates those procedures aren’t always followed and that jailers who fail to follow the rules are seldom – if ever – disciplined.

 

More cases

Detroit Police keep no central file for records on prisoners who die in precinct lockups. These are three of the six cases on which attorney David Robinson has obtained information.

Cheryl Brown was being held at the 10th Precinct following her arrest on a charge of heroin possession in 1995. About 12 hours after being locked up, she apparently began to suffer from withdrawal. Court records indicate she complained of stomach pains and gagging. Other prisoners said they heard choking sounds. According to witness statements taken during the investigation of Brown’s death, a cellmate asked an officer to get Brown medical help.

Officers eventually contacted emergency medical services, but the paramedics who examined her said Brown did not need immediate medical help, according to court records. About two hours later, Brown was unconscious and was taken from her cell to Detroit Receiving Hospital, where she was pronounced dead on arrival.

Brown’s daughter, Nikki, who sued the City of Detroit and the Taylor Ambulance Service, said the police did not contact her when her mother died. When she called the 10th Precinct, Nikki Brown recalls that officers said her mom was at 36th District Court. When she discovered that her mother was not there, Brown contacted the precinct again. She was then sent to the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice to find that her mother was not there either. A third call to the 10th Precinct produced the message that her mother was sent to Detroit Receiving Hospital the prior night. A hospital chaplain told Brown her mother had died 12 hours earlier. Robinson represented Brown’s family in its lawsuit filed against the city. This case was settled for $200,000.

Richard Tromeur, an insulin-dependent diabetic, was arrested in July 18, 1994 for alleged child molestation. He died in his cell at the 1st Precinct two days after his arrest, according to court records.

Two autopsy reports were completed. The first report conducted July 21, concluded that Tromeur’s death was due to "complications of uncontrolled diabetes resulting from lack of insulin." This report also states that "bruising in the scalp, lower back, hands and lower legs was superficial. None of these injuries contributed directly to death; some wrist injuries came most likely from handcuffs."

The second autopsy, which was done a day later, indicated that Tromeur "had been restrained by hand cuffs, beaten, kicked and manually strangled. All injuries were fresh. There was evidence of CPR." The second examination was completed due to a lawsuit filed against the city on behalf of Tromeur’s family.

Attorney Michael Alan Schwartz, who represented Tromeur’s family, says that though Tromeur suffered physical injuries he died of diabetes. His jailers knew Tromeur was diabetic yet refused him medical treatment, claims Schwartz.

Three jail guards were suspended in connection with Tromeur’s death, according to one news report.

The case was settled earlier this year for an undisclosed amount.

Wayne Harris was placed in a cell at the Detroit Police Department’s 1st Precinct on Aug. 12, 1995, on charges of busting up a bus stop and harassing police officers. Shortly after Harris was arrested, he was placed in a security cell because he was hallucinating. The following day, he was found dead with mucus running from his mouth. According to a medical examiner’s report, Harris died of a heart attack.

According to witness statements taken during the investigation of Harris’ death, Harris, who was crying, sweating and shaking, asked another prisoner to get an officer. That prisoner said the officer went to Harris’ cell and said there was "nothing wrong with the guy." The prisoner called for another officer, who said Harris "was all right." Another prisoner says he heard Harris complain that his cell was hot and that he was sweating and seeing snakes.

One officer said that Harris’s cell was extremely hot. Another said he checked on Harris every 15 minutes except when he was relieved for his lunch break; he said that when he returned, Harris was face down on the floor and "when I opened the cell I was met with heat coming out." A police report stated that Harris’ cell was so hot the paint was peeling off the walls. No lawsuit was filed in connection with his death.

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