Strong Words, Weak Punishments For Police Officers Whose Failure to Follow Procedure Results in the Deaths of Human Beings in Police Custody

Two recent deaths of individuals in police custody—one in New Bedford and one in Lowell—were met with similar responses from the heads of the departments. First, the heads of the departments spoke out to condemn the actions of their police officers and recommend significant punishments. Later, the police departments announced they reached agreements with the police officers in which the officers would receive very short suspensions. Paying lip service to serious misconduct by police officers allows police misconduct to continue.

In the case of the death of Alyssa Brame in Lowell police custody, the incident was on video. Brame was brought into custody on suspicion of prostitution on January 12, 2013. Brame was severely intoxicated to the point where she could not stand up on her own. She was placed in a holding cell while unconscious and was left alone for over an hour. When officers returned to the cell, they realized Brame no longer had a pulse. She died in the police cell.

Leaving Brame unconscious in a holding cell violated the Lowell Police Department’s policies. She needed medical care. The police officers’ failure to have Brame evaluated by medical personnel was not just negligent; it showed their indifference to her life. A parent treating a child the same way would have been charged with manslaughter. Brame was in desperate need of medical attention but no care was provided until after she was beyond help.

Lowell Police Superintendent William Taylor agreed. Taylor said he was “personally and professionally disappointed” in the way that the officers behaved and vowed that there would be “historic” punishments brought against the officers involved. He announced significant sanctions against supervisory officers, an action rarely taken by police departments.

But months later the City changed its position. Officers who agreed to waive a hearing were given 15 day paid leaves of absence. This doesn’t come close to a serious punishment. It is far from the historic punishments announced by Superintendent Taylor. Unfortunately, Lowell is not an isolated incident.

Erik Aguilar’s death in New Bedford police custody in July 2010 was handled in a startlingly similar manner. Aguilar died because he could not breathe while handcuffed lying face down on the pavement at a gas station. Again the facts were captured on video. Aguilar did not receive medical attention while police stood over him talking. Even after the officers could not detect a pulse, they waited before beginning CPR. Though the officers’ actions were called “an embarrassing disgrace” by the police department and significant discipline was promised, the only punishments given out were four day suspensions of the officers.

Minor punishments for major misconduct send the wrong message. When police officers fail to follow the rules, resulting in the death of a person in their custody, strong sanctions are needed to punish and to deter future police abuse. When the head of a police department initially proposes strong sanctions but then agrees to a short suspension, police officers learn that they can break the rules without fear. Instead of discouraging misconduct by police officers, minor penalties will encourage some officers to violate procedures designed to protect human life.

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