Following the death of Derek Williams in Milwaukee Police Department ("MPD") custody, the Milwaukee County Board passed new legislation which contains new requirements for the Milwaukee County medical examiner when a person dies in police custody. After Mr. Williams died in July 2011, the medical examiner initially attributed his death to "natural causes." After the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel obtained a video which shows Mr. Williams in the back seat of an MPD squad car struggling to breathe while MPD officers ignored his pleas for help, the medical examiner reviewed the video, along with all the police reports from the incident, and changed his ruling on Mr. Williams' death to a "homicide." The new legislation regarding deaths in police custody would require the medical examiner to review all police reports and examine any video or audio recording of the incident. In addition, the medical examiner's determination of the cause of death would need to be peer reviewed and approved by the chief medical examiner. The County Board passed the new legislation 17-1.
Now, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele may veto the new legislation. According to Medical Examiner Brian L. Peterson, M.D., the new legislation could jeopardize the Milwaukee County medical examiner's accreditation with the National Association of Medical Examiners. County Executive Abele may veto the legislation due to this possibility. A letter from the National Association to the County Board recommended internal changes rather than new legislation. The National Association did not, however, threaten to pull Milwaukee County's accreditation. Read more about the new legislation, along with information about the federal investigations of the MPD, in the Journal Sentinel here.
The civil rights lawyers of Samster, Konkel & Safran, S.C. represent the three young children of Derek Williams. We encourage County Executive Abele to sign the legislation, so that deaths in police custody are thoroughly reviewed. If police officers know that their actions will be subject to a comprehensive review, perhaps future deaths in police custody can be avoided.