“Ernest Lacy, a 22-year-old black man who died in police custody after being arrested for a rape it was later learned he did not commit.”
That description, in one form or another, appeared often in the Milwaukee Sentinel in the months after Ernest Lacy’s death in the summer of 1981. I used it myself as a young reporter assigned to cover aspects of the story and resulting protests and investigations. The phrase comes back to me whenever news breaks on yet another black man losing his life in an altercation with police — whether the use of force appears appropriate or not — and I wonder if this cycle of urban tragedy will ever be broken.
Lacy was arrested after a woman reported being raped by a black man. Police said he tried to run while being taken to a squad car and that he fell to the ground in a struggle with officers. Although the officers denied hitting Lacy, the medical examiner found more than 30 cuts and bruises on his body, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recounted in a 2012 story.
To subdue Lacy, who had nothing to do with the rape, police held him face-down in a gutter with a knee in his back, according to witnesses. He was conscious when he was loaded into a police van but unable to sit on a seat. When another prisoner noticed Lacy was unconscious — just 21 minutes after he was first stopped by police — paramedics were called. Lacy was pronounced dead an hour later, and, after three autopsies, the medical examiner ruled the cause of death “undetermined.”
Journal Sentinel investigative reporter Gina Barton revisited the Lacy case in 2012 after another 22-year-old black man, Derek Williams, died in police custody in Milwaukee in 2011, after being arrested on suspicion of robbery. He had no criminal record. A squad car video released 10 months later — and only after public-records requests by the newspaper — showed Williams begging for help and gasping for breath for eight minutes as officers in the front of the squad ignored him before he died.
An autopsy found that Williams also had 30 cuts, scratches and bruises, as well as a cracked bone in his neck, the newspaper reported. The assistant medical examiner who reviewed the case said Williams suffered the cuts and bruises jumping a fence and that the neck injury was caused by resuscitation efforts. The medical examiner failed to review police reports or the video before making his original ruling. He later changed the manner of death from natural to homicide after the Journal Sentinel provided him with reports that showed force was used. Meanwhile, police officials maintained that Williams died from a sickle cell crisis brought on by exertion.
Although a special prosecutor found that two of the officers involved in the case were careless and used bad judgment, no criminal charges were issued, in part because the prosecutor didn’t think he could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers knew Williams needed medical attention. Watch the disturbing video (http://tinyurl.com/pfpv2rh) — which officers could have but apparently did not view live from the screen in the front of the squad — and decide for yourself. But be forewarned: You will see a man die.
Three decades earlier, the Milwaukee County district attorney at the time of the Lacy case issued misconduct charges against the officers involved in the arrest, but a judge dismissed them because there were no laws in place making it a crime for police not to provide first aid, the Journal Sentinel reported. However, one of the officers was fired for excessive force, and four others were suspended.
Both cases left scars on the city that may never heal. In the aftermath of both, protests were held, reforms were promised, and procedures were added or tweaked. In fact, the Journal Sentinel reported that some of the same reforms adopted after Lacy’s death were proposed again in the wake of the Williams case as if they were new initiatives.
Of course Lacy, Williams and now Freddie Gray in Baltimore are just three names on a long list of in-custody deaths in the United States since I first typed a version of the description that tops this column. The list keeps growing — as does the roll call of officers killed in the line of duty — despite welcome changes in many large police departments.
As America has become more diverse, most urban police departments have as well, from the rank-and-file to leadership positions. (Those who watched the militaristic Harold Breier run roughshod over Milwaukee’s department during the Lacy era could never have imagined that in 1996 the city would name its first black chief of police.) Police training and techniques have become more sophisticated, and more departments are equipping both squad cars and officers with video cameras.
Yet we can be fairly certain that there will be more Lacys and Williamses and Grays. And more officers like Brian Moore, the plainclothes New York City cop who died Monday after being shot in the head while trying to question a man sought on gun charges, and officer Greg Moore, who was killed while on patrol in northern Idaho this week. Their murders came just five months after NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were shot and killed after being ambushed in Brooklyn. And, in Minnesota, it’s been less than a year since Mendota Heights officer Scott Patrick was gunned down during a routine traffic stop.
There are no solutions offered here, only laments. There are too many guns, too much hate and racism, and too little trust. Anyone who says there are simple ways to break the cycle is mistaken. We can and should work to weed out bad cops before they are armed and on the streets. We should work to close opportunity and achievement gaps that plague black America, turning too many young men into criminals. We can wish for more parents like Toya Graham, the mother who chased her 16-year-old son away from the rioting in Baltimore.
In the meantime, as we wait for something or someone to change the narrative, there will be more young men like Ernest Lacy, who became a tragic memory for his friends and family, for his community, and for a journalist who will never forget the 22-year-old black man who died in custody after being arrested for a rape it was later learned he did not commit.
Scott Gillespie is at firstname.lastname@example.org.