Tales From The Blue Line 6

The Detective Captain standing at the podium was not well liked. Most days we’d see him in the Detective Bureau assembly at about 3:45 p.m.; tall, slim, hard bodied. He had a big nose and wore thick rimmed glasses. He was openly taunted and even mocked by older detectives who’d been partners with him before he was promoted. He was there each day to give “roll call,” which meant that he’d read descriptions of suspects for serious crimes committed during the previous twenty-four hours.

This time, he surprised us by saying loudly:

“Regarding that prisoner who died in our custody last night, the matter’s been resolved. There was no wrong-doing on our part.” He then began reading roll call, as usual.

I looked at the detectives sitting near me, and they all returned my glance. What the hell is he talking about? was stamped on all of our faces. We shrugged and began listening to the descriptions.

Afterward, we were all quick to learn that none of us had heard anything about the prisoner who’d “died in our custody” the night before.

“What’s up, Captain?” some one called out.

He picked up some papers from the podium and began walking toward his office. “No time to explain. The Early Shift bosses will fill you in.”

We all returned to our own business, dismissing what the captain had said. We were sure to never think of it again.

But the remark involved an incident that kicked off a nation-wide, headline grabbing news story. A story that would have a major impact on the police use of force on everyone they arrested, from the time people were first in custody until the time they were released by the courts. The impact would extend to every police department across the country, From New York City to Los Angel-ees, as the old time radio hype-sters would have put it.

It was the story of the arrest of one Ernest Lacy for a crime he did not commit.

Now, the arresting officers had probable cause to stop and frisk Mr. Lacy, based on the just-broadcast description of a rape suspect. In their minds he fit the description of the suspect. Ordinarily he would have been checked out, as they say, and released after a short time.

No problem there.

But Mr. Lacy resisted the officers when they explained why they’d stopped him. Not all that uncommon, that a man would pull away from policemen who told him he was being investigated for a rape. What innocent man wouldn’t feel panic, believing he was about to be charged with a heinous crime that he did not commit? What innocent man’s body under such circumstances wouldn’t compulsively seize up; his breath and heartbeat launching to light speed? And on and on.

It certainly is not unexpected behavior to an officer taking such an action – stopping a man, who may or may not be guilty – and telling him he is suspected of raping someone. It was actually expected, if unusual and extreme, behavior for some men to react that way.

But the officers claimed that Ernest Lacy fought with them. As hard as he possibly could, and tried to escape their custody. The officers insisted that they’d only held him with strong force as long as was necessary.

A police conveyance wagon was called to the scene. While waiting, the officers handcuffed Mr. Lacy behind his back and placed on him on the ground, on his stomach, to keep him restrained. All normal procedures. A young woman watched from across the street and said it seemed to her that Lacy had surrendered. Some would strongly suspect that the officers continued their pressure longer than was necessary. But the law stated officers were allowed to use as much force as was “reasonable and necessary.”

Everything boiled down to that point in the arrest: Had Mr. Lacy given up, or blacked out, before the officers let him up from the ground? How would – or could – anyone determine what his condition had been, after the fact?

Mr. Lacy was found to be unconscious and unresponsive after the prisoner wagon arrived at the precinct. He was rushed to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Later that evening and the next day representatives of the Milwaukee Chief of Police and the Milwaukee County District Attorney convened. The initial opinion announced – no one ever did admit making that initial, “official” announcement – was that the officers used reasonable force.

All of the district and department commanders told officers reporting for duty on that following day that everything about the Ernie Lacy case was good.

.

Ha ha ha.

 

A local defense attorney named Alan Eisenbeerg (later made famous as the attorney representing a woman charged with murder, played by the late Farrah Fawcett in the made-for-TV movie “The Burning Bed,”) was hired by Mr. Lacy’s surviving relatives.

Every law officer and official in Southeastern Wisconsin knew that it was only the beginning of the matter. They knew it before Mr. Eisenberg even began his investigation, because he had a well documented reputation for believing that the Milwaukee Police Department was rife with brutal officers, and that he would approach this matter with a standard accusation that the police had over reacted while making the arrest. Since Lacy was African American, the case took on strong racial overtones. Officers and other officials expected Attorney Eisenberg to reject any finding or opinion that the officers had acted properly.

He did.

It was expected that he would suggest to the local news media that the officers had used too much force while subduing Mr. Lacy.

He did.

Three subsequent autopsies found Lacy’s cause of death to be “undetermined.”

Other than saying the officers had done nothing wrong, Chief Breier remained silent. Large groups of people, from across the nation with high-profile reputations for their involvement with such events, gathered and marched in the streets. The national news media monitored the situation and made regular reports. Editorials appeared in most newspapers, coast to coast. The officers believed they were being tried in the press, as it were, without all the facts being presented to the citizenry. The prevailing opinion was that the officers had acted improperly – that they had, indeed, murdered Ernest Lacy.

Ultimately the best guess was that Lacy had died from asphyxiation, when an officer knelt on his back as he lay face down. There had never been another case of this kind, where death resulted from the technique of police officers placing of a person on their stomach while subduing them.

After nearly a full month of testimony and more than 100 witnesses being called, an inquest recommended that the officers be charged with reckless homicide and misconduct in office.

District Attorney E. Michael McCann charged the officers with the recommended crimes. The case was later dismissed at the preliminary hearing due to a lack of evidence to proceed to a trial. Word from highly respected sources was that no assistant district attorney had been willing to try the case

without being ordered to do so. With three autopsies finding that there was no discernible cause of death, how could you proceed with criminal charges? It was by then a highly charged political matter, with many powerful public officials stating their belief that the officers had committed a crime.

Shocked police training officials throughout the nation said they could see no alternative to pinning the man to the ground, that it was a matter of individual judgment as to when, or if, he’d stopped resisting, and that less force could then be used while restraining him. How could an officer know where to draw the line, when the person was possibly getting the better of the encounter?

The Fire and Police Commission was off the hook of making their own decision about disciplining the officers; the recommended charges by the inquest sufficiently backed them up when they fired one officer and imposed lengthy unpaid suspensions on three others.

It took almost two years to reach the end of the matter. Pathologists were taken off guard when no cause of death could be found. A new term was coined, called “Positional Asphyxiation,” meaning if a person lays too long on their stomach, with too much pressure on their back, they can suffocate. It can’t necessarily be proven, but it is obviously a dangerous technique. From then on, officers needed to have prisoners in a seated position if it were deemed necessary to place them on the ground.

Many vicious and provably untrue accusations were made against the police along the way. This was standard procedure by certain people who always protested when a citizen was injured during an arrest. I knew this for a fact because I was a member of the department; an officer with more than ten years experience, I understood what had happened. People with no experience, and who had been deliberately misinformed because of that fact, accepted the claims without knowing the truth. The moment that most affected me was, after the judge dismissed the case, a local TV camera was pointed at Ernest Lacy’s mother, who then claimed that the D.A. told her afterward that the officers “were guilty of murdering Ernest.”

There was never a meaningful public discussion of that remark. We on the police department tried to keep tabs on it, to see if it was ever addressed – by the news media, or by the District Attorney’s office. None was ever noted.

In the minds of millions of Americans, the officers were guilty. Even though there was never a trial, much less an official finding of guilt.

This is the sixth in an ongoing series from Rob.

He spent thirty-two years as a Milwaukee police officer: seven years doing undercover narcotics investigations and twenty-two years as a major crimes detective. Writing and reading have been lifelong passions, and he began by writing short stories more than thirty years ago.

Rob is published by Orange Hat Press

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