Community, leaders gather to discuss Derek Williams’ death investigation

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MILWAUKEE — 22-year-old Derek Williams died while in police custody in July of 2011. On Monday, Milwaukee’s District Attorney John Chisholm and Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn announced an inquest into Williams’ death, after an amended Medical Examiner’s report changed Williams’ cause of death from Sickle cell trait to homicide (death at the hands of another). Surveillance video shows Williams struggling to breathe in the back of a squad car, and on Thursday, members of the community gathered and made a point to take a look at that video.

The Milwaukee NAACP and public officials were joined by community members Thursday in a call for justice after Williams' death.

Keith Bailey with Milwaukee Matters organized a public viewing of dashcam video that was taken moments before Williams' death. Bailey hoped people would draw their own conclusions.

"It's only the death of Derek Williams that strikes the community the way it does. It's also the many folks that have suffered in the hands and at the hands of the police department," Bailey said.

Those in the crowd Thursday evening were visibly angry as they watched the dashcam video showing Williams squirming in the back of the squad car, gasping for air.

In July 2011, Milwaukee police say they chased Williams, who was wearing a mask, near Center and Holton. The officers took him into custody and placed him inside their squad car. That’s when police say Williams passed out in the back seat, and was not breathing.

Dashcam video shows Williams apparently struggling to breathe while under arrest for robbery. Not long after this, Williams was pronounced dead. Officers attempted to revive Williams, but were unsuccessful.

"The whole police department is not bad. The people are not saying everybody is bad, however, there is a lack of trust due to the current culture of the current police department. Only the community can come together and change some of those things so his death isn`t in vain," Bailey said.

Williams' family was on hand Thursday night, and thanked the community for their support.

Meanwhile, public officials like Alderman Ashanti Hamilton and Alderwoman Milele Coggs urged the community to unite and advocate for equality and justice. They said they believe a collective effort can help change the system.

Organizers say Thursday's event was meant as a means of opening up a dialogue about the incident and how to make changes moving forward.

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn sat down with FOX6′s Chip Brewster for an exclusive interview Wednesday, September 26th, where he discussed the recently-announced inquest into the Williams' death.

Chief Flynn and his department have been under public scrutiny since the Medical Examiner’s report was amended and the dashcam video was released.

“There is no margin for error in the public consciousness. (The Medical Examiner) has adjusted the findings to say that this Sickle cell trait, resulting in death, had to have been triggered by some sort of human intervention,” Chief Flynn said.

Though the cause of death in this case is now homicide, Chief Flynn told FOX6 News that does not mean someone willfully killed Williams — just that he would not have died if it weren’t for “human intervention.”

“As tragic as this death was, the individual involved had just been in a foot pursuit, climbed a fence, lost his shirt, stuck on the fence, hidden from the police, been captured by the police, briefly struggled, and handcuffed.  There certainly was a lot of human intervention,” Chief Flynn said.

Chief Flynn said he does acknowledge his officers made an error in judgement when responding to Williams’ cries for help.

“Doesn’t mean we don’t take responsibility for not reacting more rapidly to his medical crisis,” Chief Flynn said.

Chief Flynn also shot back at press decrying how long the dashcam video was withheld, and that its publishing prompted the investigation.

“This video has been in the hands of competent investigators since the very beginning. It was previously viewed by the family and it was given to the newspaper within three days of the family giving permission for us to give it to them. In May of this year, the newspaper filed an open records request wanting the video. For the next two months, the newspaper and the City Attorney’s Office exchanged letters because the key issue was the city and the police department would not issue this dramatic tape without getting a release from the family. The release from the family was presented on September 14th of this year, and they had the video in their hands by September 17th,” Chief Flynn said.

Despite all of his efforts, the community’s trust in the Milwaukee Police Department seems to have taken a big hit — something Chief Flynn said they will continue to work on.

“We’re committed to transparency and we’re committed to in future doing a more effective job,” Chief Flynn said.

Four members of Milwaukee’s Common Council met with Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and Chief Flynn Tuesday to discuss this case. They said it was a productive meeting, but they still have questions for the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner regarding what information prompted him to change the cause of death in this case.

City leaders also expressed concern over the timeline for the release of the dashcam video.

CLICK HERE for additional coverage on Derek Williams’ death via FOX6Now.com.