New York City police officers allegedly saw Barrington Williams selling MetroCard swipes inside the subway station at East 161st Street/Yankee Stadium in the Bronx on Sept. 17, 2013. When the officers approached the 25-year-old, he ran.
According to media reports at the time, officers caught up with Williams after a short chase and arrested him. But during the arrest, Williams suddenly became "unconscious and unresponsive," according to the NYPD.
He was pronounced dead shortly after, and the Office of the New York City Medical Examiner determined a few weeks later that Williams had died from "acute and chronic bronchial asthma" -- essentially a severe asthma attack. The examiner ruled that the death was from natural causes.
But last Friday, Williams’ mother, Karen Brown, filed a lawsuit claiming that her son didn't die of natural causes. Rather, Brown alleges it was the way police treated Williams while arresting him that lead to his death.
The lawsuit alleges that the officers used “excessive force” and displayed “deliberate indifference” to Williams’ medical needs, among other claims. According to the suit, police placed Williams “on the ground and applied force to his chest and neck,” which caused Williams to stop breathing. And despite Williams’ “clear need of medical attention,” the officers “failed to take reasonable and available steps to provide him with help.”
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, names the city of New York, as well as six NYPD officers -- Joel Guach, Agenol Ramos, Robert O’Brien, and three unidentified officers -- as defendants. It seeks damages in a sum to be determined at trial.
Brown’s lawyer, Michael Lamonsoff, told The Huffington Post that his firm’s investigators have corroborated claims that Williams was thrown to the ground during the arrest, causing his asthma inhaler to fall out of his pocket. This, Lamonsoff said, should have alerted cops to the urgency of Williams’ condition.
However, Lamonsoff made sure to point out that the specific allegations about police applying pressure to Williams’ neck and chest haven't yet been corroborated. At this point, he said, those charges are “scuttlebutt" -- merely rumors.
Still, he added, Williams’ death was “an “Eric Garner-like situation.”
Garner, 43, died after an NYPD officer placed him in a prohibited chokehold during an arrest in July 2014. His death set off massive protests across the city and the country.
Like Garner, Williams was an unarmed black man being arrested for a petty infraction. Like Garner, Williams suffered from asthma. And like Garner’s, Williams’s arrest was captured on video.
The difference is that whereas the Garner video was shot by a bystander who made the video public, the Williams video was captured by a surveillance camera in the subway station. Lamonsoff said his firm has confirmed the existence of the surveillance video, but that the NYPD has thus far refused to hand it over to Williams’ family.
“We will get the video,” Lamonsoff said, explaining that the lawsuit has been filed largely to force the NYPD to relinquish the footage and other details surrounding Williams' death.
“The fact that they refused to turn over the evidence to us … to me raises an eyebrow, raises a question in my mind,” Lamonsoff said. “If they acted within proper course of the patrolmen’s guide, then why would they not turn over? That would obviously not force us to bring a lawsuit to federal court.”
Police officers' accounts of events when a person dies in custody have come under heightened scrutiny after the recent death of Walter Scott in South Carolina. Initially, authorities said Scott tried to overpower a police officer, forcing the officer to fatally shoot him. However, a video released later showed the officer shooting Scott in the back as he tried to run away.
“We have not had the cooperation of the police, we have not had the cooperation of the city and we have not had the cooperation of the medical examiner’s office," Lamonsoff said.
“The lawsuit involving this tragic incident is under review -- I cannot make any further comment,” Nick Paolucci, press secretary at the New York City Law Department, told HuffPost in a statement.
An NYPD spokesperson said only that the department “will refrain from commenting on pending litigation.”