There Is Video of Sgt. James Brown’s Final Moments in an El Paso Jail

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In July 2012, a 26-year-old African American Army combat veteran stationed at Fort Bliss turned himself in for a two-day sentence for DWI. His name was Sgt. James Brown. He walked into the El Paso County Jail of his own volition, and was carried out, unconscious.

At the time of Brown’s death, the jail gave a statement that read, “James Brown turned himself in for a DWI Commitment. While in custody, he required medical treatment and was transported to University Medical Center where he later died. Pursuant to state statutes and regulation, the case is under investigation by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney’s Office, and under review by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Results from the autopsy, including toxicology, are pending.”

This week, KFOX in El Paso obtained video of twenty of the final minutes of Brown’s life. They’re graphic and difficult to watch—please be cautioned before clicking the link—but they reveal some of the spin involved in the statement from the jail. Namely, that while the broad strokes are true—Brown did require medical treatment while in custody, and he was transported to the University Medical Center, where he was declared dead—the way those facts obfuscate the details is shocking.

Brown’s family and lawyers believe that the young soldier, who suffered from both post-traumatic stress and sickle cell disease, experienced a sickle cell crisis brought on by the stress of his incarceration and dehydration. In the video, Brown can be heard begging for water and saying three words that, nearly two years to the day later, would be immortalized as the last words of Eric Garner in New York: “I can’t breathe.”

What the video doesn’t show is anyone at the jail seeking medical attention for Sgt. Brown. As KFOX reports

The video shows at some point, Brown appeared to have an episode in his cell that caused him to bleed. It’s not clear from where. When he refused to answer or speak to the jail guard, a team of guards in riot gear were brought in to storm his cell.

From beginning to the end of the recording, Brown stated he could not breathe.

By the end of the clip, Brown’s physical condition appears to deteriorate, showing shallow breathing and no longer blinking or being responsive. Brown appears to no longer be capable of pleading for anything. Attorneys say at no time was an ambulance or 911 called for help.

Admittedly, none of us were there and questions remain about precisely what happened in Brown’s cell before the video begins. But one thing does appear clear: Brown was experiencing a medical emergency, and jail staff treated it as a disciplinary emergency. The fact that Brown doesn’t answer the jail guard when asked questions could potentially be seen as a lack of cooperation, but given that he died shortly after that encounter, it was much more likely a result of his medical emergency.

Brown’s mother says that, shortly after he turned himself in for the first-time DWI offense, the jail staff told him that he would be serving seven days, instead of two, which prompted him to make a call and ask to be wired money in order to pay a fine. His blood tested negative for illegal drugs, and his family’s attorney suggests that the stress of the situation triggered the sickle cell crisis, which was cited as his cause of death. 

Brown’s death garnered some attention at the time that it happened, but that was also before the ongoing conversation about police violence and race had entered the public consciousness in the way that it has since the deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Walter Scott in North Charleston, and Eric Harris in Tulsa. With the video—and the words “I can’t breathe” echoing once more in the consciousness of America—it’s hard not to place Sgt. Brown’s death in the same context as so many others: if not as a victim of brutality, then at least as a black man who was seen by police as someone to be controlled, rather than someone who needed their help. 

(Screen shot via KFOX)

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  • biff

    Even when you cooperate with police and correctional officers, it still happens. Another just world fallacy.

  • Tammy Clarke

    I just watched the video that was 17 mins long I watched for indication that he was mistreated or something and I saw nothing that showed one: of him being mistreated two: of him possibly hurting himself or three: of him dying it showed nothing the way he could have died was after they treated him when he was alone. He said I can’t breathe when they had the mask on and when they were trying to cool him down after he goes back to his cell and they take his clothes he was left alone. So what ever happened between the time they took his clothes and later finds him died is up for debate. But that is just my opinion on what I saw

    • NotoLepage

      “…the failure to act provides a ground for criminal
      sanctions only where there is a pre-existing legal duty to act.” – and jail guards have such a legal duty. The failure to call for medical aid for Sergeant Brown was a crime. (And the El Paso sheriff referring to an active duty soldier as “Mr. Brown” rather than using his rank? Shows even more disrespect.)

      • livinginthefreeworld

        You got it right.

    • P kinslow

      You’re STUPID! Nuff said. Let them treat your child that way with the same result and see how your stupid self feels then?

    • livinginthefreeworld

      I couldn’t watch the whole thing. I did however read the articles about it. Two things are clear from what I read. The treatment he received greatly contributed to his death and the total disregard for human life contributed to his death. It is clear this man would be alive if not for suffering while in their custody and at their hands. Period.

    • Thea Strassburg

      If that were you in that video, Tammy, do you think the same result have occurred? How can you possibly watch the slow death of a human being and then say “looks ok to me!”. Astounding and disappointing. And why the hell is ist always a black guy?

    • BobbyDP

      WoW Tammy, you wonder sometimes what makes some people tick, or if they tick at all. Or perhaps some people lack comprehension skills or cannot comprehend, that is until it affects them or their loved ones.

  • Daniyel Ras Tafari Drummond

    What is the procedure when someone, anyone can’t breathe? I thought it was render aid and seek help. Like the victim was taught to. He was trained to help a person not breathing as an emergency not as a playwright. Whether it’s the race card being pulled or not, the victim drew the worse card.

  • CNNModerator95

    Those guards should be tried and executed. Then maybe the words “I can’t breathe” might mean something.

  • Thea Strassburg

    News Alert! Black people have medical conditions, they have health problems, pre-existing conditions. Just like white people do! Amazing but true! Black people also serve our country, have families, emotions, hopes, dreams, make mistakes, achieve, breath, feel. Wait, that sounds like us white people! Why? Because they, just like us, are human. I know it is hard to swallow for some white people, but these are just facts.

  • Robi Snyder

    If anyone deserves superior treatment is our soldiers who put it all on the line for us. This is not only a total disregard for human life but in absolute disrespect for a United States soldier. This system of domestic torture before death sickens me beyond words.