RACINE COUNTY - The mother of a man who died in police custody in southern Wisconsin appeared alongside Rainbow Push Coalition leaders Friday to urge state and federal officials to investigate the death.
Rainbow Push National Field Director Bishop Tavis Grant called on the attorney general for Wisconsin to spearhead an investigation into the case of Malcolm James, who died while being restrained by Racine County deputies after calling 911 and saying he was suicidal last June.
"He should never have been in jail," Grant said.
In the minutes before his death, James was pepper-sprayed and tased by Racine County sheriff’s officers. As jail workers tried to remove the taser prongs from James’ body, they bent his neck forward in a way that cut off his airway, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Friday in Wisconsin by James’ mother, Sherry James.
"They put all the weight and force on the back of his neck, basically asphyxiating his throat, and when he struggled, saying ‘I can’t breathe,’ they kept doing it and holding him down harder," Chicago-based attorney Kevin O’Connor said at a news conference.
Grant said video of the incident shows the "inept and inadequate and egregious lack of care, lack of compassion and lack of professionalism that led to the death of Malcolm James."
A representative of the Racine County Sheriff’s Department, which is named in the suit, didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
The Milwaukee County medical examiner’s office determined James died by suffocation, but the Racine County district attorney’s office filed no charges in the death.
A report released by the office cited contrary expert opinion as to the cause of James’ death. And it noted that the confrontation with correctional staff that preceded his death took place during an attempt to protect James from himself because he’d been hitting his head against a wall.
James had called 911 on May 28 and indicated he was suicidal, according to the district attorney’s report. When police arrived, they found a fire in his apartment, and James was taken into custody, placed on suicide watch and charged with arson.
At the jail, his hands were cuffed behind his back, and he was placed in a restraint chair with a spit mask over his face.
Sherry James cried as video of the moments that led up to her son’s death were played on television screens Friday.
"His life was taken from him … because he was having a breakdown. He was having a mental health crisis," said James, who called for justice for her son. "He was a gentle soul … a really good kid."
Rainbow Push Executive Todd Yeary said James’ death was an "insult" that called for "righteous indignation."
He said the U.S. Justice Department should get involved and that federal dollars should be withheld from state budgets until measures are taken to prevent deaths while in police custody.