Texas sheriff fires 11 employees, suspends 6 others, after February death of a Black man in custody
(CNN) -- Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez fired 11 employees and put six more on unpaid suspension in connection to the in-custody death of a Black man in February, Gonzalez announced Friday.
Gonzalez said Jaquaree Simmons, 23, was found unresponsive in his cell February 17 after detention officers used force on him.
"I have fired 11 employees for various serious policy violations. During a natural disaster we expect, I expect, to see the very best in our employees," Gonzalez said during a Friday afternoon news conference.
Simmons died at the time of the ice storm that month that caused widespread power outages, including at the jail.
"These 11 people betrayed my trust and the trust of our community. They abused their authority, their conduct toward Mr. Simmons was reprehensible. They showed complete disregard for the safety and well-being of a person they were directly responsible for protecting," the sheriff told reporters.
The terminations and suspensions come after the internal affairs department completed its investigation into Simmons' death. A separate criminal case is still being investigated by the Houston Police Department, Gonzalez said. Once completed, the results of that investigation will be sent to the Harris County District Attorney's office to determine whether criminal charges are appropriate.
Simmons was booked on February 16 on a charge of felon in possession of a firearm and put in quarantine per jail protocol, Harris County Sheriff's Department Maj. Thomas Diaz said.
Simmons had used his clothing to clog a toilet, flooding the cell, Diaz said, and after the cell was cleaned up, he was returned to it with no clothes.
When he was served dinner later that day, a detention officer said Simmons threw his food tray and lunged towards him. The officer struck Simmons and closed the door to the cell, Diaz said.
Simmons was then removed from the cell, handcuffed and escorted out of the cell, suffering multiple blows to his head as he was moved to medical, Diaz said.
Medical conducted a check, prescribed him pain medication, and requested an X-ray be completed the next day, as power was still out at the jail due to the ice storm, according to Diaz.
The X-ray was never completed, Diaz said.
When Simmons was found unresponsive the next day, officers in the jail began CPR and called for medical help. Simmons was transported to a hospital where he was pronounced dead at 1:27 p.m. Diaz said.
The medical examiner determined that Simmons death was a homicide from blunt force injuries to his head with a subdural hematoma, according to Gonzalez.
"They escalated, rather than deescalate the situation, their conduct was unacceptable, and inexcusable. None of them deserve to wear the Harris County Sheriff's Office patch ever again," Gonzalez said.
"The circumstances of his death raised immediate red flags, frankly, the initial explanation given by those who were involved just didn't comport with the facts," he added.
Gonzalez said there was no video of the incident and the jail was without power at that time due to the ice storm, making electronic records for checking on inmates impossible at the time.
Diaz said the investigation took three months, and 73 interviews with 20 inmates and 37 employees.
Diaz said the employees who were terminated and suspended had a number of violations that included excessive use of force, failure to document excessive use of force, failure to intervene, making false statement to investigators, and violating procedures.
Suspensions range from three to 10 days for the six officers who were not terminated.
Gonzalez commended the internal affairs investigation and apologized to the family of Simmons.
"I want to take a moment to once again express my personal sincere condolences to his family," Gonzalez said. "You have suffered a profound loss. And you have my deepest sympathy."
"I'm very upset and heartbroken about the findings because I feel that these individuals have violated our trust. As I mentioned, I take my oath, as do many members" as being sacred, he told reporters. "We have a duty to protect those in our care, and that didn't happen that day."
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