NC officers resign after in-custody death

The police chief recommended the officers be fired after security video showed they failed to check on a detained man who suffered a medical emergency

By Amanda Zhou
The Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In the minutes before Harold Easter appears to go unconscious, alone in a police interview room, he begins to speak haltingly.

“You think I’m gonna die, but I’m not,” he says in garbled tones.

Easter grips the edge of a table. A few minutes later he slumps over the table, then suddenly moves upward and falls onto the floor. He hits a chair on his way down and starts having a seizure.

By the time police discover him, he has been on the floor for eight minutes.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police on Thursday released 17 video clips totaling 6 hours, 28 minutes of footage from body and surveillance cameras that detail Easter’s arrest after a traffic stop on Jan. 23, him being left alone in the interview room at the CMPD Metro station, and medics working on him after he collapses.

The 41-year-old Easter was taken to a hospital, where he died three days later.

The Observer reported this week that the four CMPD officers and a sergeant involved have resigned after being recommended for termination by Police Chief Johnny Jennings for not following policy of seeking medical assistance for Easter, who had ingested crack cocaine at the arrest scene.

[READ: 'The pendulum goes back and forth': Chiefs address resignations and retirements]

Officers knew Easter put drugs in his mouth, which Easter admitted to during his arrest, the videos and documents released by CMPD revealed. The officers and sergeant did not follow a long-standing CMPD policy that states anyone suspected of ingesting drugs must be evaluated by Medic before being taken to jail, The Observer has reported.

The officers involved are Brentley Vinson, Michael Benfield, Michael Joseph and Shon Sheffield, and the sergeant was Nicolas Vincent. They had been on administrative leave since January.

CMPD changed department policy in February to require continuous observation of people being detained. At the time of Easter’s arrest, officers were required to visually check on people in custody only every 15 minutes. The footage shows that officers left Easter alone for more than 40 minutes without checking on him.

District Attorney Spencer Merriweather said last week the officers will not be criminally charged for involuntary manslaughter.

Ahead of the videos’ release, Alex Heroy, an attorney representing Easter’s family, said the decision to release the videos was not an easy one, but the family decided to allow it because of the “public justice aspect.”

“I don’t know what the reaction is going to be,” he said in an interview two weeks ago. “Sadness for sure.”

Superior Court Judge Carla Archie ordered release of the videos to the public.

The arrest

CMPD said in January that Easter was pulled over near Whisnant and Burton streets after officers observed a “suspected drug transaction.” Officers said they found him in possession of crack cocaine and marijuana.

Body cam footage shows an officer stopping his car and immediately pointing his gun at the car in front of him.

“We had some weed, that’s all,” Easter is heard saying when the officer approaches the car.

“Don’t eat it! He’s eating it,” the officer shouts. “Put your f— hands up.”

Easter is heard saying he and others were planning to smoke marijuana, and that he didn’t want his passenger to get in trouble. The officers search the car and comment that Easter was crushing up cocaine in the front seat.

The videos show an officer holding rocks of crack taken from the car before putting them in a small bag for evidence.

As officers drive him to the CMPD substation, Easter is heard asking whether he can go to the bathroom on the side of the road. The officers say they are almost at the station, and he can use the bathroom there.

“I understand but we’ve got policies we’ve got to follow, too,” the officer is heard saying.

Interview room

At the CMPD station, Easter was strip searched and brought into an interview room.

Video footage of the room shows four chairs around a wooden table. An officer shackles Easter to the floor and takes his earrings and belt. Easter is wearing jeans and a red shirt and hoodie.

“In about five minutes we’ll come back and get you,” the officer says before he leaves the room.

During that time, video shows Easter shouting, mumbling and sometimes asking for water. After 18 minutes, an officer opens the door and hands him a cup.

He continues to shout for around 25 minutes, then leans over the round table, gripping its edge, and starts speaking slowly as he shakes slightly. Easter begins to moan and slump over. At one point, he claws at the table.

He lies over the table face-down for about two minutes. Then he moves up suddenly and falls to the floor and onto his side, hitting a chair. The cup also falls onto the floor and he appears to be having a seizure.

By the time an officer opens the door, Easter has been on the floor for nearly eight minutes.

Footage from a body camera shows officers responding to Easter. On the floor near Easter’s head is a red liquid. There are four officers in the room as one holds Easter’s head. Another comments that Easter is having a seizure.

An officer says Medic is on the way and they move him into the hallway. Easter continues to seize.

“Harold, you all right?” an officer calls out, trying to get him to respond.

Two officers feel Easter’s wrist and say they can’t find his pulse. They move Easter onto his back and start giving him CPR.

EMTs arrive and begin working on Easter. He is still unconscious.

Officers resignation

The five officers’ personnel files will reflect that he recommended them for dismissal and that they resigned “in lieu of termination,” Jennings said at a press conference Thursday after release of the videos.

And they are entitled to receive their pensions, regardless of whether they had gone through the Civil Service Board process, since it is money they have paid from their own paychecks, he said.

Jennings does not have unilateral power to hire, fire or discipline officers, all of which must go through the Civil Service Board.

When asked whether they might seek other police jobs, Jennings said law enforcement agencies often require applicants to sign a waiver allowing the agency to view their personnel files before making a hiring decision.

“We would not hire someone who has resigned from another agency,” he said.

Jennings said the policy to call for Medic if someone has ingested a large amount of narcotics is “clear cut and dry” and a situation he himself and other officers have been in before.

“If they had followed policy, we would have at the minimum given Harold Easter a chance,” he said.

City leaders react

There are consequences to the “kinds of actions” the officers took, Mayor Vi Lyles said at the press conference Thursday.

“We have to acknowledge that this incident has been a tragedy for Harold Easter’s family,” she said.

City Council members watched the footage in closed session on Monday ahead of the release to the public.

Council member Malcolm Graham said, “A part of being an officer and the importance of policy is that they be followed. We now understand when a policy is not followed, it can have deadly consequences.”

“I’m glad that we have a chief who is willing to take that sort of necessary action to hold officers accountable,” Council member Larken Egleston said.

©2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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