Family moves to sue over in-custody death, which Lombardo says has spurred changes at Metro

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Ricardo Torres-Cortez

Family members of Byron Williams and their supporters meet in front of Metro Police headquarters for a protest Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. Williams died in police custody earlier this month.

Thu, Oct 10, 2019 (2 a.m.)

A pair of Metro Police patrol officers spotted Byron Lee Williams pedaling his bicycle on a central Las Vegas sidewalk in the predawn hours last month.

The bike did not have lights required to ride in the dark, giving officers a reason to stop him for a moving violation, authorities said.

But Williams, 50, pedaled away, and later took off running, leading the officers on a short but strenuous pursuit Sept. 5 to set off a chain of events ending with his death. The incident was captured on officer-worn body cam footage.

Williams, a black man, was profiled because of the color of his skin, his family alleges. They also say officers ignored Williams’ repeated pleas that he couldn’t breathe and “acted with an utter disregard for human life.”

Keith Davidson, the family’s attorney, say police ultimately killed Williams twice by speaking about his criminal history in a briefing meant to expound on the details of the in-custody death. That tarnished his reputation, Davidson wrote in an email to the Sun. The family likely will file a lawsuit against Metro.

Change forthcoming

Sheriff Joe Lombardo, in a recent editorial meeting with the Sun, said that the officers “could have done a better job” and that the agency — as a result of the death — was upping department-wide training to address scenarios when someone says they can’t breathe.

Officers are now required to place suspects on their side, sit or stand them up, he said.

Click to enlarge photo

Byron Lee Williams

Lombardo said the footage of Williams’ arrest appears to show him breathing and making a conscious effort to try to hide methamphetamine and prescription opioids he dropped during the interaction. Williams lifted his legs when the officers hauled him away, which would’ve required him to breathe, Lombardo said.

Lombardo said he could see how keeping someone on their stomach, like Williams was, could constrict the ability to breathe.

“Was that the result of his death?” Lombardo asked rhetorically, saying that the Clark County coroner is tasked with making that determination. That office hadn’t ruled on a cause as of Wednesday afternoon.

Lombardo dispelled the notion that Officer Benjamin Vazquez, 27, and Patrick Campbell, 28, had profiled Williams based on race. “Absolutely not,” Lombardo said. “We ask our officers to fight crime and that’s what they were doing.”

Vazquez and Campbell were attempting a “simple” pedestrian stop to talk to Williams, who decided to run from them, Lombardo stressed.

Fatal encounter

The officers first encountered Williams at 5:48 a.m. on Martin Luther King Boulevard and Bonanza Road. Immediately, Williams ditched his bike to lead officers on a foot pursuit.

After scaling two walls, Williams surrendered at 5:51 a.m. in the courtyard of a nearby apartment complex on 1720 W. Bonanza Road, police said. On video, he’s repeatedly heard saying he couldn’t breathe. Lombardo noted the chase had also left the officers winded.

Lombardo emphasized the officers, including those who showed up after Williams was in custody, did not use force during the arrest.

Footage shows Williams lying on his stomach with an officer’s knee on his buttocks. There’s a minor struggle to cuff one of Williams’ hands, which police said was grasping the drugs.

Williams “passed out” but was still “making noises” and moving, police said.

Officers summoned medics at 5:54 a.m. An ambulance arrived in the area shortly after 6 a.m., police said.

Williams died at Valley Hospital Medical Center at 6:44 a.m., police said. His family claims extended body-cam footage shows an officer allegedly telling Williams that he was not going to be helped. They also took issue with the officers' professionalism, saying the video shows them celebrating and laughing after chasing down Williams in the foot pursuit.

The family has viewed the extended, unedited footage. They are urging Metro to release the footage, which Lombardo said would be available when the investigation concludes.

Davidson, the attorney, criticized Metro’s press conference on Sept. 9 as “self-righteous and slanted.” Clark County Assistant Sheriff Charles Hank was “marched out” to dodge and deflect “their own culpability while disparaging and denigrating the reputation of one of their citizens,” Davidson said in the statement.

Williams was out of jail on charges of alleged meth trafficking and possession of a dangerous drug without a prescription, police said. Under the condition of his release, Williams was required to wear a monitoring ankle bracelet. But he had not charged the device.

Police said they were in the process of obtaining a warrant for his re-arrest.

“We have no doubt that a jury will award Mr. Williams family in excess of $21 million — $1 million for each time that Mr. Williams told officers he couldn’t breathe as they squatted on him and laughed,” said Davidson in a news release, indicating that Williams’ family was in the process of filing litigation.

A search through county and federal court records suggests that action hasn’t been taken.

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