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CMPD releases videos related to in-custody death of Harold Easter

Updated: Oct. 1, 2020 at 11:32 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department released video of the moments leading to the in-custody death of Harold Easter in January.

CMPD released the videos just after 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 1. The release consists of more than 5 hours of footage spread across 17 different videos. The release includes police body-worn camera of the arrest, transport and surveillance video of the detention of Harold Easter on January 23, 2020.

** GRAPHIC VIDEO WARNING ** Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police have released this video to the public in compliance with a ruling from the Mecklenburg County Superior Court. This video is hard to watch and may be very disturbing. ** The raw videos associated with the in-custody death of Harold Easter can be viewed here. CMPD has been experiencing technical difficulties with this page; if you aren’t able to view the videos watch the full breakdown story below:

CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings and Mayor Vi Lyles, along with other city leaders, addressed the public at 2 p.m., just hours after the video was released.

“It’s been extremely heartbreaking to me to see the impact this has had on the Easter family,” Chief Jennings said. “They’re good people. Something they should not have had to endure and live through. I do pray they find comfort in knowing that the police department did what we had to do to hold these officers accountable.”

Jennings continued, “And I don’t believe these officers had malicious intent, but they did make a bad decision and they didn’t follow policy. Those bad decisions have consequences, especially when those decisions have contributed to the loss of life. A life that we had the responsibility to protect. When someone’s in our custody they’re also in our care.”

Chief Jennings said the video, which he has watched multiple times, was “arguably one of the most difficult videos” he’s had to watch in his “entire career.”

BREAKING | WATCH LIVE: Charlotte-Mecklenburg police just released hours of video related to the in-custody death of Harold Easter » https://bit.ly/3n5mvTY Officers are addressing the public now.

Posted by WBTV News on Thursday, October 1, 2020

Jennings said it was “clear to me that the officers knew or should have known that he ingested cocaine.”

“As soon as they secured Mr. Easter in handcuffs somebody should have gotten on the radio and asked dispatch to start MEDIC on their way to do an evaluation on them,” he said.

“It troubles me even more to know that had those officers followed policy and made better decisions, there may have been a different outcome,” Jennings said, adding that the department was taking “every opportunity” to look at policies to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.

“I can ensure that members of this department will continue to be held accountable when their actions violate policy and impact community trust,” Jennings said.

Mayor Lyles spoke next.

“We have to acknowledge that this incident has been a tragedy for Harold Easter’s family. We have to acknowledge the fact that there is another life lost,” Lyles said. “As a result, we also have to understand that we have to ask each other to understand that there are consequences to these kinds of actions and we have to seek to move forward.”

“You can see the difference in the way that he approached this investigation,” Lyles said of Chief Jennings. “Change is taking place. It’s taking place inside of the department and it’s taking place in our own community.”

Alex Heroy, the Easter’s family attorney, said Thursday was hard for the family.

“Knowing the whole world is going to see your brother, son ‚dad, cousin die the way he did, die unnecessarily, that’s been really tough,” Heroy said.

With the march Thursday night at First Ward Park in Easter’s memory, Heroy says people are angry and that having the community behind the family means something.

“They’ve all taken it differently. Harold’s mom has had a really tough day, she tried to surround herself with family and just be supported by loved ones,” he added.

As far as what’s next for the family, Heroy says they are working to make positive changes in the city.

Here is a breakdown of the case from the arrest to the release of the video and what was seen in the police body cam and surveillance videos from inside the police sub-station.

ARREST:

  • Harold Easter was arrested on drug and traffic charges by CMPD on Jan. 23, 2020, just north of uptown Charlotte near Burton Street during a traffic stop just at 11:40 a.m..
  • CMPD says Easter was seen making a drug deal before he was pulled over. Officers say he was in possession of cocaine and marijuana.

The video of Easter’s arrest and transport to the station includes 30 minutes and 25 seconds of footage. It begins silent before the officer can be heard saying someone has their windows down and is yelling something out of the window.

The officer then gets out of his vehicle, gun drawn, and orders Easter, who is in the driver’s seat of a dark SUV, to put his hands up.

As the officer approaches Easter’s vehicle he can be heard telling Easter to put his hands up multiple times as Easter explains he and someone else “had some weed.”

“My man just got out, we had some weed. That’s all,” Easter can be heard saying on police body cam video as the officer makes his way to driver’s door, still ordering him to put his hands up.

As the officer continues to order Easter to put his hands up and keep them up, there is a struggle through the vehicle window as the officer says “Don’t eat it! He’s eating [inaudible].” Another officer is directed to get the passenger of the vehicle.

“He just got home and I didn’t want him to get in trouble," Easter says. “That’s all, I didn’t want him to get in trouble. He just got home. We had some weed, he wanted to smoke a blunt.”

The officers remove Easter from the vehicle, place his hands behind his back and put him in handcuffs.

“He was crushing up this [inaudible], he was crushing up [inaudible],” the first officer says as a second officer takes Easter away from the vehicle. The first officer then picks up to clear baggies off the ground next to the vehicle.

“He was crushing up part of his crack, he didn’t get all of it though. But that’s what he was doing while I was fighting for his hands. But we probably got a eight-ball down here," the officer says. “No he didn’t get all of it. While I was fighting him he was crushing part of it. We probably got an eight-ball right there.”

After looking around the inside and outside of the vehicle for a few minutes, the officer hands a Styrofoam cup to another officer, saying “He pushed this baggie into this cup. I’m not sure what was in the bag but it made the drink black.” He then tells the officer Easter “chucked something out” while he was being arrested.

The officers then discuss what was found in the vehicle and what Easter was doing as the first officer was trying to gain control of his hands.

“He was trying to eat it hard,” an officer can be heard saying.

The officer again mentions the drink turning black, and someone can be heard saying “I didn’t put nothing in, it was Kool-Aid.”

The officers discuss crack and marijuana multiple times over the next several minutes while they search the vehicle and put what appear to be different baggies into envelopes, presumably for evidence.

About 24 minutes into the video, the first officer gets back into his vehicle with Easter in the back seat. The two then begin to drive to the police station as Easter again says he didn’t have anything on him but a “little piece of sheet and weed.”

At one point after saying he needs to use the restroom, Easter says “I can’t breath.” The officer responds, “You’re talking so you can breath.”

As Easter is being taken out of the police cruiser at the station, he can be heard asking for water.

“You talking about cause I swallowed something, you won’t let me get no water. You’re supposed to let me get water and use the bathroom. Let me get a sip of water man. I need some water. That little piece of [expletive] ya’ll caught me with that ain’t [expletive].”

Easter then asks multiple times again for water as the officer tries to look into his mouth with a flashlight as Easter seems to resist, saying he doesn’t have anything in his mouth. The officer then says “you aren’t getting any water then.”

The officer then leaves Easter with another officer as he checks the bathroom and the first video ends.

THE INTERVIEW ROOM:

  • Harold Easter suffered a serious medical emergency while in an interrogation room at the CMPD sub-station, according to officials.
  • While being interviewed and going through the booking process, Easter began experiencing what CMPD described as a life-threatening medical emergency and lost consciousness.
  • After Easter’s death, CMPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau began conducting a separate but parallel investigation to ensure the officers' actions were consistent with the CMPD’s policies and procedures.

Easter and an officer enter the interview room at 12:19 p.m. Easter asks the officer to “bounce around,” and the officer later removes the handcuffs from Easter’s hands and put shackles around his feet. After asking first if it’s alright to take his shirt off, Easter removes his sweatshirt – saying “it’s hot."

“In about 5 minutes I’m going to come back and get you," the officer says before he leaves, around 12:22 p.m.

Easter is seen swaying in the interview room and asks several times for water. Although Easter is the only one in the interview room, he continues talking. He mentions that he swallowed what sounds like a “piece of weed” and a “little piece of rock.”

“I said I had to pee. I needed some water," Easter said in the interview room, at 12:24 p.m. “I need some water,” Easter said again several minutes later, at 12:27 p.m. “I’m getting dehydrated," Easter says, still alone, “So if I die in here, everybody know what I (inaudible).”

“But ya’ll gonna let me die in here,” Easter says at 12:28 p.m.

At 12:31 p.m., an officer enters the room and Easter says to the officer, “Let me get some water.” The officer returns six minutes later with what appears to be water.

At 12:58 p.m., Easter yells “SARGE,” and says he needs to use the bathroom. “If you trying to (inaudible) me die …I only had a little piece," Easter is heard saying. "I ain’t gonna die.”

Several minutes later, at 1:04 p.m., Easter is seen lying across the table. He makes a sound and then appears face down and silent with his arms making slight movements. Two minutes later, at 1:06 p.m., Easter falls to the floor and begins convulsing.

Officers enter the room at 1:14 p.m., 37 minutes since the last officer left the room, and acknowledge that Easter is having a seizure. One of the officers is heard asking for someone to call Medic. “Already on the way,” an officer responds.

“Hey Harold,” an officer says. No response can be heard. “Harold, you alright man,” an officer asks.

“He’s awake,” one of the officers says, before the officers pull Easter in the hallway.

DEATH AND AFTERMATH:

  • Harold Easter died three days after he was arrested and detained by CMPD.
  • Easter was 41 years old when he died on Jan. 26, 2020.
  • Easter had swallowed drugs during his arrest and been left unattended in an interview room, where authorities say he suffered a seizure and heart trouble. Easter was left alone, repeatedly asking for water while his legs were shackled to the floor.
  • Four CMPD police officers and one CMPD sergeant were placed administrative leave in January after Easter’s death
  • Police Chief Johnny Jennings cited the officers for termination for not following policy of seeking medical assistance for Easter on Sept. 18, 2020. (Police chief does not have the authority to fire police officers). The police chief can recommend termination, promotion or demotion to Charlotte’s Civil Service Board
  • Chief Johnny Jennings said the officers had “intimate knowledge” that Easter had ingested cocaine during the traffic stop. He said Easter was then left unattended in an interview room for 20 minutes when he “clearly needed medical attention.”
  • The five CMPD employees cited for termination resigned days ahead of the public release of the video showing Easter in distress in a CMPD interview room.

During the press conference following the videos’ release, Chief Jennings said that "any department seeking to hire these officers will be provided with the personnel files of the officers. They will be able to get the information that we have here.”

EXISTING CMPD POLICY AT TIME OF EASTER’S DEATH:

Per policy at the time, police officers were to immediately call for medical help if they know or suspect that someone they’re arresting has swallowed drugs. The suspect must be evaluated by MEDIC before transport to jail if they’ve taken drugs.

  • POLICY WORDING: “If the person is believed to have swallowed the illegal substance, officers will immediately call Medic and a supervisor. A person who has ingested illegal substances needs to be immediately evaluated by medical personnel before they are transported to jail.”

CMPD POLICY CHANGES STEMMING FROM EASTER DEATH:

  • 12 days after Easter’s death, CMPD announced a major policy change while Kerr Putney was still CMPD Chief.
  • Officers are required to continuously monitor anyone they’ve arrested
  • Officers can monitor people in custody - from arrest à transport à interview rooms - in person or through video systems
  • In response to the internal review of this incident, four departmental directives were revised on Feb. 6, 2020, and implemented on March 18, 2020.
  • Under the prior directive, officers were required to make visual observation of a subject in custody at least every 15 minutes.
  • CMPD made changes to four department directives, including policies that govern suspect interview rooms, officers transporting prisoners and officer interactions with people with mental illness or extreme distress.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY REPORT:

  • District Attorney Spencer Merriweather announced the five officers would not be criminally charged for involuntary manslaughter in Harold Easter’s death.
  • The 35 page report was released Monday, Sept. 21.
  • According to the DA, officers put Easter in an interview room at approximately 12:19 p.m. and “checked on him periodically.”
  • Officers then began providing medical aid and requested Medic. Merriweather wrote “This was the first time the decedent received medical attention during this encounter with law enforcement.”
  • According to the DA’s timeline, Harold Easter was in the interview room for 47 minutes before he started having seizures and fell to the floor.
  • The report said the state would have had to prove that the officers knew or should have known that Easter ingested cocaine and that their failure to get medical attention amounted to criminal negligence. The inability to prove proximate cause of death means no criminal charges, according to the report.
  • “There were three medical experts we consulted… None of those three could say with a degree of medical certainty that he wouldn’t have died,” Merriweather said.

COURT RULING ON VIDEO RELEASE:

  • On Sept. 11, the Mecklenburg County Superior Court ruled to release video related to his in-custody death to the public on Oct. 1.
  • “We’re all still angry. We’re sad, we have different emotions. We’re thankful to have this video released,” said Andrell Mackey, Harold Easter’s sister.
  • Chief Jennings said the video was “very difficult to watch.”

FAMILY RESPONSE:

  • Family members spoke on Jan. 28, 2020.
  • Gemini Boyd, with The Bail Project, spoke on the family’s behalf.
  • Easter left behind a fiancé and four children, according to family members.
  • His family believes the death could have been prevented.
  • Family members spoke to the media again on Sept. 21, 2020, one hour after the District Attorney’s decision to not charge the officers was reported.
  • At that time, the family and their attorney, Alexander Heroy, had reviewed the video of Easter’s in-custody death.
  • “They knew he needed help in our view, and they left him there. They handcuffed him to the ground and left him there,” Heroy said.

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