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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014

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In Milwaukee Buzz Commentary

Derek Williams died in police custody in July 2011.

Inquest jury wants charges but we'll have to wait and see


The inquest into the death of Derek Williams made history this week.

For the first time in more than 25 years, an inquest jury recommended charges against three Milwaukee Police officers involved in a fatal shooting or in custody death. The verdict came as both a surprise and a welcome revelation for many supporters of Williams' family and others who want to make police officers more accountable for their actions in some communities.

But it's important to remember; it's not over yet.

As most should realize by now, it's an advisory verdict only.

That means it's in the hands of Special Prosecutor John Franke to decide whether the city enters a new phase of anxiety as the Milwaukee Police Department itself gets placed on trial.

Williams died in the back of a police squad car in July of 2011 last after being arrested on suspicion of robbery. Testimony during the inquest by police officers at the scene and bystanders in the area gave an account of an aggressive arrest followed by Williams complaining that he couldn't breath while being detained in the back of the squad car.

A gripping squad car dashboard video that showed Williams last moments was a blockbuster piece of evidence during the inquest that showed exactly how the suspect was treated by the officers involved. Most people who saw it on local TV over the past few months found it difficult to watch.
Some members of the inquest jury apparently felt it was pretty powerful, too.

After hearing testimony for seven days from police officers at the scene who were compelled to testify by Franke, along with various experts and bystanders who witnessed the arrest, the inquest jury decided two important things: They found the victim had died from a sickle cell emergency and that officers on the scene failed to help him in an appropriate manner.

The decision was welcome to the family and friends of Williams, as well as a legion of supporters who see the case as Milwaukee's latest civil rights outrage.

Williams, 22, was African-American.

But Franke's decision that the only charges to be considered in Williams' death will be misdemeanors probably wasn't totally satisfying to the dead man's survivors, who are also anticipating a federal civil rights investigation at some point.

The Williams case placed a bright spotlight on the behavior of some Milwaukee Police officers, mainly through the use of squad car video cameras that have only been used in Milwaukee since 2006.

That might explain why it's been so hard to get charges issued against cops in previous years: Nobody had any tape before.

Whether that will be enough to bring real justice for Derek Williams this time is still yet to be seen.

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