An hour in custody at the Snohomish County jail was an hour too long for Bill Williams, 59. As The Herald’s Diana Hefley reported Sunday, Williams died of a heart attack preceded by “excited delirium,” a form of mania exhibited by people living with severe mental illness. Williams was pinched for shoplifting beer and cigarettes and had previous run-ins with police. He went into cardiac arrest lying flat on his stomach, his hands cuffed behind his back.
Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe will determine whether the officers involved should be charged with a crime. The lead detective with the Snohomish Multiple Agency Response Team didn’t find evidence of negligence. Williams’ death was, he wrote, “accidental.”
Too many unintended consequences, too many bad-luck anecdotes trace a pattern, however. Eight jail deaths since 2010 are a systemic problem that demands a systemic solution. The jail is the largest de facto mental-health facility in a county with a population of 722,000. Medical services are inadequate, and interagency communication is poor (Hefley notes that while area hospitals were warned about an agitated Williams skipping his meds, police were not. Lines of communication must extend to law enforcement.)
Consider as well the 2011 case of 27-year old Lyndsey Elizabeth Lason, who died of a pulmonary infection. Lason was young, her condition treatable. But personal misfortune crossed with professional inattention. As former county forensic pathologist Carl Wigren writes as part of a $10 million wrongful-death claim, the medical staff and corrections officers were complacent. “Despite her repeated requests, sometimes specifically for an X-Ray of her chest, the medical staff did not adequately assess her medical condition,” Wigren writes. “Simple diagnostic tests could have saved her life.”
Another death, that of 22-year old Michael Saffioti in 2012, brings the problem into focus. Again.
Saffioti, who turned himself in on a misdemeanor marijuana charge, died from bronchial asthma triggered by severe allergies. Did he have access to the bag of medications needed to control his life-threatening food allergies and respiratory problems?
Finally, there is the troubling unknown of whether resource issues influence medical options. Two years ago, The Herald’s Noah Haglund reported that higher-than-expected medical costs for inmates pushed the jail $1.4 million over budget in 2010. Juxtapose a renewed budget discipline with the Lason and Saffioti deaths, and it doesn’t look good, even if there’s no causal relationship.
Earlier this year, the sheriff’s office requested an outside investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. A report is expected soon, and Sheriff Ty Trenary already has assigned new people to administer the lock-up. It’s a promising start to what must be meaningful, system-wide change.