Orange County, FL — There’s probably no better example, to highlight the systemic problem our system of justice currently faces, than the following story. An elderly man, William Howard (75), who had never been in trouble with the law before, had a run-in with police after his wife said he “began to act strange.”
Howard was arrested and taken to jail for attacking his wife with a knife. But it’s what happened next which illustrates just how violent the system truly is.
The convergence of mental health issues, crime, and the criminal justice system worked against Howard’s favor following his arrest. Why he wasn’t taken to a mental health facility following the attack is a question which remains to be answered — especially considering the fact that this man with no arrest history did something so outlandish. Nevertheless, Howard found himself an inmate in Florida’s Orange County Jail on November 16, 2016.
Because of his diminished mental state, jail personnel were having a hard time getting Howard to cooperate with their orders. Appearing confused, according to reports, Howard would not come out of his jail cell.
The corrections officers on the scene worked patiently, it seems, to coax Howard into compliance. They jingled keys and spoke to the man, advising him to come to the sound of the clanging noise. “I’m over here,” a jailer can be heard saying as he shook the keys.” “Come over here,” he implored.
Howard didn’t budge, and so the controversial decision to use force was made. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the wisest of decisions. While Howard appears to be a tall man of formidable stature, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know the man, being elderly, is also quite frail.
A crew of more than a few jailers entered his cell and grappled with him. But it’s what happened after they controlled him which is reportedly leading Howard’s family to consult an attorney.
After controlling the elderly man, the same use of force procedures were used on him as are used on inmates much younger. He was taken to the ground — but not gently. He was slammed to the ground on his face, an action which the coroner stated led to his death.
According to the autopsy, two vertebrae in his neck were broken, and his spinal cord was crushed. Yet even though the actions of the officers ultimately led to his death, the Orange County district attorney concluded no laws were broken and no jail employee would be criminally charged.
The resolution to Howard’s unfortunate death will likely be determined in civil court, as a result. But to date, no lawsuit has been filed on behalf of Howard’s family.
Attempting to dissect the problems with Howard’s death is difficult, especially since the officers involved have already been cleared of any wrongdoing. Given the nature of Howard’s behavior, in attacking his wife with a knife, it may be that he was suffering from some sort of medical issue. Indeed, it is what all signs point to, especially considering his wife’s description of him acting strangely.
Strokes, manic episodes, schizophrenia and other illnesses can lead someone to carry out an attack on the ones they love the most, even a concussion can create such behaviors.
It’s unclear if Howard’s actions were the result of such a medical condition, nor is it clear that his mental state was evaluated prior to locking him up in jail. What is certain is that submission methods when dealing with an elderly inmate must be reevaluated.
If there’s a risk a man’s bones can be broken, his spinal chord crushed, and death can be a result, some other method of containment must be employed. More must be done to ensure jailers do not end up being executioners.