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Five police officers in Savannah, Georgia, were released after a black man hanged himself in custody in April, a death three of them mocked in a text message exchange that contained a crude GIF, officials said this week.
The release of the officers was announced by the Savannah Police Department on Monday. On the same day, the city’s chief of police and mayor met with the family of William Harvey, who hanged himself by his shoelaces on April 3 after officers questioned him at police headquarters as part of an investigation into a serious assault.
Mr. Harvey, 60, was found unresponsive in an interrogation room where he was left alone. His death was classified as a suicide by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
But his family charged the police with what the officers did before and after his death. They said police neglected the warning signs that Mr Harvey was in distress, did not activate all of the cameras in the room and later made the tragedy easy in a group text message exchange.
Roy W. Minter Jr., the Savannah police chief, said at a news conference Tuesday that Mr Harvey’s death could have been prevented had the officers not gone wrong.
“I don’t think any of these officers were malicious, but they made some bad decisions and didn’t follow the department’s policies and procedures,” said Chief Minter.
The punishment of the unaccounted for crimes came as law enforcement agencies across the country came under scrutiny following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis for misconduct and complaints about institutional racism.
“When you are in the custody of the police, you should be able to go into an interrogation room and come out alive,” Francys Johnson, a Harvey family attorney, told a news conference Monday.
Mr Harvey’s relatives said they would not rest until there was complete transparency of what was going on in the interrogation room and justice was done.
“We’re not going to stop until we’ve answered all of our questions,” said Mr. Harvey’s son Michael Harvey at the press conference. “Because we only want to know the truth.”
Two of the officers – Cpl. Silberleuschner and Sgt. Michael Kerr – were fired for their response to the situation, the Savannah Police Department said. A third officer was suspended.
Officials said Ms. Leuschner violated the department’s code of conduct and failed to turn on the cameras during the encounter. You said Mr. Kerr had violated his managerial duties. The officials did not provide any information.
Ms. Leuschner said in an email Tuesday evening that at the time of Mr. Harvey’s death she was 15 minutes from a hospital headquarters looking for a victim and that Mr. Kerr was also out of the building. She said that two patrol officers who sat outside the interrogation room 40 minutes and didn’t sit after Mr. Harvey kept their jobs. A camera system in the interrogation room, she said, was not working properly.
“I was told: ‘This is political, so someone has to go,'” said Ms. Leuschner, who described herself as a scapegoat.
Mr. Kerr was not immediately available Tuesday evening for comment.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether he and the other officers had lawyers. The Southern Police Charity did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday night.
The three officers fired over the text messaging that made fun of Mr. Harvey’s death were named Sgt. Christopher Hewett, Cpl. Erica Tremblay and Officer David Curtis.
In the text message exchange received from WSAV television, one of the officers shared a GIF showing a black man hanging himself from a noose.
A person who replied from an email address listed for Mr. Curtis declined to comment Tuesday night. Mr. Hewett and Mrs. Tremblay were not immediately available for comment.
Chief Minter said Tuesday that he checked some of the officers’ body camera footage of meeting Mr Harvey and that it was difficult to see.
“It was extremely heartbreaking to see the impact this particular situation had on the Harvey family,” he said. “I hope and pray that they will find some kind of comfort in knowing that the Savannah Police Department did what we had to do to hold the members of our organization accountable.”
If you have thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK) or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.