Family demands answers, release of video, after man’s death in Metro custody

By: - September 16, 2019 6:32 am

The family of Byron Williams, along with their attorney and community activists, outside Las Vegas Metropolitan Police headquarters in September. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. 

In all the body camera footage Byron Williams’ family watched following his death in Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s custody Sept. 5, they heard him say “I can’t breathe” at least 21 times. The family was brought in by Metro to watch all the footage captured by several officers involved. 

“The last words he heard as he lay on the ground was a Metro officer saying, ‘Nobody is coming for you,’” Jeffery Thompkins, Williams’ step-son, said in front of Metro’s headquarters on Saturday.  

But only a small portion of what the family reviewed has been made public. “For one (video) to be picked as the least offensive and be presented to the community is not right,” Thompkins said. “So you didn’t hear the defamatory and offensive language being used. As a family, we are struggling (with what we saw).” 

Standing in front of Metro headquarters on Martin Luther King Boulevard, members of Williams’ family clung to one another as they spoke and fought back tears. It’s been about a week since they were last brought into the station to view the footage of Williams’ encounter with officers. 

This time, they weren’t alone.

The family along with community members and organizations like the Forced Trajectory Project, a multimedia project that has been collecting stories of police brutality in Las Vegas, protested in front of Metro headquarters Saturday afternoon to demand police release the unedited versions of the body camera footage.

“We want what (Williams) heard as he is crying for help, we want America to see that,” said Teena Acree, Williams’ niece. “You will see officers disregard his cries for help. That’s not OK.”

Beyond wanting answer for what happened to Williams, the family and the activists who attended also want changes to be made to a system that allows for the over policing of black and brown communities and policies that prevent officers from facing accountability. 

“Where’s the legislation at?” Minister Vance “Stretch” Sanders asked the crowd. “Where are the bills saying you don’t have the right to turn the camera off? Why are so many politicians quiet? We got to start calling some stuff out.”

During a press conference Sept. 9, police officers said they tried to stop the 50-year-old on an early Sept. 5 morning for riding his bicycle without safety lights. Assistant Sheriff Charles Hank told members of the media the encounter proceeded after Williams fled from the police. 

Organizers, as well as Williams’ family, are pushing back against the media briefing and how the situation is being framed. 

“Everyone says he shouldn’t have run,” Sanders said. “Police are not our friends. We’ve never had a friendly relationship with the police as a whole. If we want to run, that’s fine.”

In addition to wanting all the unedited footage to be released, the family wants to know why officers turned their body cameras off between the time they handcuffed Williams and when medical assistance arrived.

Hank, during the Sept. 9 press conference, said Metro is looking into the cameras being turned off and added Metro policy allows officers to turn off the cameras “at the conclusion of an incident.”

“As long as a citizen is in your care, the cameras should be rolling,” Sanders countered. “What is the point of having body camera footage when they can dictate when we can see the footage and dictate when they can turn off the footage?”

This isn’t the first time members of community have spoken out after people of color have been killed during police stops. The Forced Trajectory Project, which first documented the Williams’ family story, has been collecting stories of other situations to speak out against police use of force policies.

“Trevon Cole, Stanley Gibson, Keith Childress Jr., Tashii Brown, Roy Scott, Byron Williams,” said Nissa Tzun, the cofounder of the Forced Trajectory Project. “These are the names of some of the unarmed Black men who were either killed or died in custody of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police.” 

Alma Chavez, whose son, 23-year-old Rafael Olivas, was fatally shot by Metro in 2011, also attended the rally to support the Williams’ family and demand policy changes. “I’m tired of seeing family members suffer like me,” she said while holding a photo of her son. “We hope (lawmakers) make changes to protect the citizens. The police already have so many protections. We need to protect the citizens.”

While some legislators attended a recent forum put on by the Forced Trajectory Project, people at the rally were disappointed they haven’t heard local politicians respond to the incident.  

Marcie Wells, an activists who attended Saturday’s protest, said as much as black women are courted in each election cycle, it seems lawmakers are not to be found when they are demanding action and accountability. 

“We just had a women’s wave that we boast about and we talk about the majority female Legislature,” Wells said. “These are moms who are losing their husbands, losing their sons, losing their family members. Where are you?”

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.