Five police officers in Savannah, Georgia, have been fired after a black man hanged himself in custody in April, a death that three of them mocked in a text message exchange containing a crude GIF, officials said this week.
The officers’ resignation was announced Monday by the Savannah Police Department. That same day, the city’s police chief and mayor met with the family of William Harvey, who police say had hanged himself by his shoelaces on April 3 after officers questioned him at the police station as part of an investigation into aggravated assault.
Mr Harvey, 60, was found unresponsive in an interrogation room where he had been left alone. His death was labeled suicide by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. But his family has blamed police for the actions of officers leading up to and after his death.
They said police neglected the warning signs that Mr. Harvey had been in distress, failed to activate all the cameras in the room, and later exposed the tragedy in a group message exchange.
Roy W. Minter Jr., the Savannah Police Chief, said at a media briefing Tuesday that the death of Mr. Harvey could have been avoided if the officers hadn’t made mistakes.
“I don’t think any of these officers had any bad intentions in what they did, but they made some bad decisions and didn’t follow the department’s policies and procedure,” Chief Minter said.
The punishment of the officers, who have not been charged with any crime, came as law enforcement agencies across the country faced intense investigations into misconduct and complaints of institutional racism following the death of George Floyd while in custody in Minneapolis.
“If you are under police supervision, you should be able to enter an interrogation room and come out alive,” Francys Johnson, a Harvey family attorney, told a news conference Monday. Mr Harvey’s family members said they would not rest until there was full transparency about what happened in the interrogation room and until justice was served.
“We won’t stop until we have all our questions answered,” Harvey’s son, Michael Harvey, said at the press conference. “Because we just want to know the truth.” Two of the officers – Cpl. Silver Leuschner and Sgt. Michael Kerr – were fired for their reaction to the situation, Savannah police said. A third officer was suspended.
Officials said Ms. Leuschner had violated the department’s conduct policy and failed to turn on cameras during the meeting. They said Mr Kerr had breached his responsibilities as a regulator.
The officials gave no details. Ms. Leuschner said in an email Tuesday evening that at the time of Mr. Harvey was 15 minutes from hospital headquarters to check on a victim and that Mr. Kerr wasn’t in the building either.
She said two patrol officers who had been outside the interrogation room for 40 minutes and failed to check on Mr Harvey had kept their jobs. A camera system in the interrogation room was not working properly, she said. “I was told, ‘This is politics, so someone has to go,'” said Ms Leuschner, calling herself a scapegoat.
Mr Kerr was not immediately available for comment Tuesday evening. It was not immediately clear whether he and the other officers had lawyers. The Southern States Police Benevolent Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday night.
The three officers who fired at the text message exchange in which Mr. Harvey, were identified by the Savannah Police Department as Sgt. Christopher Hewett, Col. Erica Tremblay and Officer David Curtis. In the text message exchange obtained by the television station WSAV, one of the officers shared a GIF of a black man hanging himself by a noose.
An individual who responded from an email address listed for Mr Curtis declined to comment Tuesday night. Mr Hewett and Ms Tremblay were not immediately available for comment. Chief Minter said Tuesday that he had viewed some body camera images of the officers from the meeting with Mr Harvey and that it was difficult to look at.
“It is extremely heartbreaking to see the impact this particular situation has had on the Harvey family,” he said. “I hope and pray they find some kind of comfort knowing that the Savannah Police Department did what we needed to do to hold members of our organization accountable.”