Metro sued in federal court over death of Byron Williams

Last words — ‘I can’t breathe’ — mirrors George Floyd’s death, attorney says

By: - July 16, 2021 6:01 am

Byron Williams died while in police custody in 2019.

It’s been nearly two years since Byron Williams, an unarmed Black man who was pursued by officers because of a broken bicycle light, died in police custody after uttering “I can’t breathe” more than 20 times. 

Williams’ family is still seeking answers and trying to find justice after Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson decided last year not to file charges against the officers involved in his death.

Standing beside prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump and local attorney Antonio Romanucci on Thursday, Williams’s family fought back tears as they called for transparency and announced a federal civil lawsuit was filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court of Nevada. 

“The part that hurts the most is the fact that he is not only no longer with us, but the fact we have asked and continued to ask for transparency,” said Teena Acree, Williams’s niece. “We have continued to ask the police department for an unredacted video of what happened to our family. We have not received all of that” 

The 44-page federal lawsuit names the City of Las Vegas, Clark County, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, and Sheriff Joe Lombardo as well as four officers, Patrick Campbell, Benjamin Vasquez, Alexander Gonzalez and Rocky Roman.

Attorneys say Metro has not released all the body camera footage from Williams’ arrest. The lawsuit also claims officers violated William’s 4th and 14th Amendment rights. 

In an email, Metro said it does not comment on pending litigation. 

Crump said the fact there were changes brought against the officers is “fertile ground for inquiry.” 

He added he would like “higher authorities” such as the Nevada Attorney General’s office and the U.S. Justice Department to investigate, but hasn’t formally asked those offices for intervention.

“This family is not going to give up on getting full accountability,” Crump said. 

The part that hurts the most is the fact that he is not only no longer with us, but the fact we have asked and continued to ask for transparency.

– Teena Acree, Williams’s niece

Nearly nine months before Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer triggered nationwide protests in May 2020, Williams died Sept. 5, 2019 shortly after his arrest. 

As dawn broke on the horizon that morning, officers attempted to stop Williams because his bicycle’s safety light wasn’t on. Metro said he fled, which resulted in officers chasing him. 

On the video that Metro has released, Williams can be seen placed face down with his hands cuffed behind his back, and can be heard repeating over and over again, “I can’t breathe.”

“Because you’re fucking tired from running,” one officer responded. 

Crump said in some ways the circumstances of Williams’s death “might be worse than George Floyd,” because officers were joking about the situation. 

“We saw similar indifference and inhumanity here in the state of Nevada and the City of Las Vegas when Byron Williams was detained by police and said ‘I can’t breathe’ 24 times,” Crump said. “Like they gave George Floyd no consideration and no humanity, they gave the same exact thing to Byron Williams … A lie won’t live forever and we’re going to expose this lie. Byron Williams should not have been killed by the police for riding a bicycle while Black.” 

Bhavani Raveendran, another attorney who spoke Thursday, said while Metro has released some footage, they haven’t been able to obtain the complete footage and “there are at least 10 minutes where there is no video footage.”

“But what we did see officers do is put pressure on Byron Williams head, neck, shoulder blades and buttocks,” she said. 

Williams was pronounced dead less than an hour after his arrest. His death was ruled a homicide a month later by the Clark County Coroner’s Office.

“What we saw, what I saw, was the inhumane treatment of my uncle for not being given proper care,” Acree said. “He said he could not breathe over 21 times. I’m so tired of hearing this across America.”

While there was some local outrage immediately after his death, there was no national attention. 

Following Floyd’s death and nationwide protests around police violence against primarily Black communities, other cases around the country of mostly Black and Latinx people dying in police custody began getting attention.

Williams’s death was one of those. 

“Had George Floyd not been murdered, had he not been tortured for nine minute and 29 seconds, had Darnella Fraizer not videotaped George Floyd being murdered, these voices like Byron Williams across the country and the hundreds before him would have been silenced forever,” Romanucci said.

Last summer, Crump released a statement calling on Metro to release all the body camera footage. He said in that July 2020 statement, and reiterated on Thursday, that if the footage had been available in its raw, unedited form it might have sparked national outrage.

The civil lawsuit is as much about bringing closure and justice for Williams’s family as it is about bringing nationwide changes to policing and racial disparities in the justice system. 

Joining the Williams’s family Thursday morning was the brother and nephew of George Floyd, who both travel the country to speak about police reforms. 

“The dead cannot speak out for justice so we will do it for them,” said Philonise Floyd, George’s brother. 

While offering support for the Williams family, he also called for Congress to pass legislative reforms, specifically the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. 

The bill, which passed the House in March, would implement various police reforms including addressing police misconduct, enhance federal oversight over local police departments and making racial profiling illegal.

“Until the George Floyd police reform bill gets signed in Washington D.C., until that Senate decides there needs to be institutional accountability and transparency, we’re not done,” he said. 

Crump urged for reforms to be passed before there is “another George Floyd.”

“If we don’t do something, there will be another Byron Williams,” he said.

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues.