EVERETT — A fatal struggle in the Snohomish County Jail between corrections officers and an Everett man didn’t amount to a crime but it highlights the challenges of addressing the needs of people living with mental illness, the county’s prosecuting attorney has concluded.
Mark Roe won’t file criminal charges against the five corrections officers who struggled to restrain Bill Williams, 59, as he was being booked into the jail last year for investigation of shoplifting.
Williams first resisted being arrested by Everett police officers who had twice been summoned to a gas station for a man who shoplifted some cigarettes and later returned and took off with a six-pack of beer. By the time he was transported to the jail Williams was cooperative.
He struggled with staff there after being led to a room to change out of his street clothes. A corrections sergeant used a stun gun to subdue Williams.
Williams appeared to have trouble breathing and the sergeant called for a nurse. Before he was evaluated by medical staff, Williams seemed to recover. Corrections officers hauled him up, but he continued to resist being put into a cell. The sergeant again shocked him with a Taser. Finally, at least four corrections officers wrestled him into a cell. He was left on his stomach with his hands cuffed behind his back.
About a minute later, the sergeant reported that Williams quit breathing. Officers, jail nurses and Everett paramedics tried to revive him. Williams died after spending less than an hour in the jail.
An autopsy found that he died of a heart attack after suffering from “excited delirium,” a form of mania that follows severe physical agitation combined with combative or violent behavior. Episodes of excited delirium can be common among people living with severe mental illnesses.
“I have concluded my review of the tragedy and do not believe the custody officers involved did anything wrong. Mr Williams’ death appears to be the latest incidence of the ‘excited delirium’ phenomenon that has unfortunately taken the lives of several Snohomish County residents over the last couple of decades,” Roe wrote in a letter this week to the lead detective who investigated the Sept. 14 death.
The case was handled by the Snohomish County Multiple Agency Response Team, a cadre of detectives from different police departments assigned to investigate fatal use-of-force incidents.
Video captured almost the entire encounter between Williams and the corrections officers. The video shows what appears to be a wrestling match. Corrections officers described Williams as being strong, and on that day, able to lift a deputy using one arm. He was strenuously resisting, but didn’t try to punch or hurt the officers, according to the letter.
“William Williams was by all accounts a decent, but ill man,” Roe wrote.
The prosecutor recently met with Williams’ wife and two children to discuss his decision and the letter he planned to send to the lead investigator Jonathan Ventura, a detective sergeant with the Arlington Police Department.
“Like many families of loved ones who struggle with mental illness, and with the limited resources our communities have to address their needs, Mr. Williams’ family were frustrated that more had not been done over time to help him,” Roe wrote.
Williams had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar and psychotic disorders. He didn’t have any significant criminal history. He had never been booked into the county jail before Sept. 14.
Records indicate that Williams struggled with sheriff’s deputies in 2011 after his wife called police, saying that her husband was having a psychotic break. He was taken to a hospital instead of being booked into jail.
His family is distraught and angry over the years they spent trying to get services for him, Roe wrote. They told Roe that they were only able to get Williams sporadic help because he generally didn’t meet the requirements to be hospitalized against his will.
Williams was under the care of Compass Health at the time of his death. A day before he died, mental health care workers had issued a crisis alert advising hospital staff that if they came in contact with Williams, he was having a “psychiatric episode.”
There’s no protocol to give police the same warning.
His wife suggested to Roe that more can be done to alert police officers about a person’s mental health history. She suggested that the Washington Crime Information Center, which provides police details about a person’s criminal history, also include information about a person’s mental health illnesses and include a contact number for a caregiver.
His wife “is certain that if she had been able to be present, her husband could have been calmed down,” Roe wrote.
He said his office would explore her suggestion and whether such a thing can be accomplished given current medical privacy laws.
“Your investigation clearly indicates … to some extent, the ever-present challenges local and state governments around the country face in addressing the many, often complex needs of persons burdened with mental health disorders,” Roe wrote detectives. “As you know, however, our only role as SMART is to review the facts to determine if a crime was committed.”
Now, that Roe has made his decision, the sheriff’s office will conduct an internal review to determine whether the corrections officers followed department policies, sheriff’s spokeswoman Shari Ireton said.
Williams’ death is one of at least eight that have occurred in the Snohomish County Jail since 2010. There has been enough concern over the deaths and medical care for inmates that the sheriff’s office asked for an outside review by the U.S. Department of Justice.
An examination of jail operations was done last month by the National Institute of Corrections. The medical unit is scheduled to be reviewed by another team later this month.
The sheriff’s office earlier this week announced that it had hired a doctor to work part-time at the jail. Newly appointed Sheriff Ty Trenary also is looking at other improvements, including hiring more nurses and mental health professionals, moving from paper to electronic medical records, and more closely screening inmates before they’re booked at the jail.
“Law enforcement is often faced with situations like this when a mentally ill person has an episode, is victim of a crime, or commits a crime. Law enforcement has no option but to deal with the situation,” Roe wrote. “They cannot walk away, or ignore it. They can only handle each person the best they can.”
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.