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)