A Tennessee Man Called Police for Help, Then Died in Their Custody


Sterling Higgins called the police in March 2019 and told them someone was following him and trying to kill him. When officers arrived at a convenience store parking lot in northwestern Tennessee, they found Mr. Higgins distressed and yelling at a woman whom he accused of stealing from him.

“Do you take medication? You need to,” a Union City, Tenn., police officer told him. “Something’s wrong.”

Within hours, Mr. Higgins, 37, would be dead.

Lawyers for his estate said that after the police arrested him for trespassing, officers held him down in a struggle at the Obion County jail, where they grabbed him by the neck until he went limp. As he was unconscious and foaming at the mouth, they tied him to a chair and left him in a cell for about 14 minutes before medical help arrived, the lawyers said. He died on March 25.

It was all captured on disturbing video that was never shown to the grand jury that investigated the case. Lawyers for his estate released the video on Friday.

A federal civil rights lawsuit accuses the police and county jail officials of causing Mr. Higgins’s death by using excessive force, restraining him in a way that asphyxiated him and failing to provide him medical help.

The case is unfolding in U.S. District Court in Western Tennessee as protesters nationwide continue to demand an end to racism and police brutality following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The recent demonstrations across the country have renewed calls from protesters in Tennessee who want accountability for the officers who restrained Mr. Higgins, who had two daughters. They are now 2 and 5.

“Sterling Higgins was a good man who deserved fair and humane treatment,” Jennifer Jenkins, the mother of one of his daughters, said in a statement. “He was treated as if his life didn’t matter. We want the truth to be known. We want accountability. We want justice for Sterling Higgins.”

Ms. Jenkins, the administrator of the estate, filed the suit in March, naming Obion County, Union City, and a city police officer and three officers with the county sheriff’s department.

The lawsuit maintains county and city officials failed to recognize that Mr. Higgins should not have been arrested but sent to a hospital where he could be treated for what was clearly a mental health breakdown.

Mr. Higgins did not have a diagnosed mental health illness but had told a relative he had once had post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosed, said Erik Heipt, one of the lawyers representing the estate.

Mr. Higgins called 911 the evening of March 24, 2019, and told the operator someone was coming after him. When officers arrived at Pocket’s Market in Union City, he appeared delusional and insisted someone had stolen his tax return.

City police officers ordered him to leave and he agreed to go. But a store employee called them back, saying Mr. Higgins had gone into a storage locker and would not get out.

When the police returned, Mr. Higgins told them he was afraid someone was going to shoot him. “I’m scared,” he told the officers when they found him in what turned out to be a freezer.

They arrested Mr. Higgins for trespassing and took him to the jail, where he passed a deputy sheriff’s officer in the hallway and briefly touched her and spoke to her. She shoved him away and he grabbed for her hair, refusing to let go, officials said.

Sheriff’s officers then wrestled Mr. Higgins to the ground and one of them knelt over him, placing one hand on his chin and the other around the neck and mouth, according to the lawsuit and video footage taken from the jail.

The footage shows Mr. Higgins kicked his feet and tried to squirm away as a Union City police officer appeared to stand on top of the lower half of his body.

The struggle continued for several minutes, until Mr. Higgins appeared to become totally limp.

The video shows a white substance around his mouth as he is dragged to a chair. After they buckled him in, one of the sheriff’s officers lightly pushed his head, which fell to the side, one video showed.

He was wheeled into a cell. Officers periodically went in to check his pulse. At about 2:15 a.m., paramedics arrived and began performing CPR.

Mr. Higgins was declared dead at Baptist Memorial Hospital less than 40 minutes later.

Lawyers for the county and the sheriff’s officers declined to comment, as did a lawyer for the Union City police officer. An official at the sheriff’s department declined to comment and hung up before identifying himself. A lawyer for the city did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

Tommy Thomas, the Obion County district attorney general, agreed that the videos are “very disturbing” but said they did not prove criminal behavior.

The officer who is seen placing his hands in the area of Mr. Higgins’s neck later said he was trying to keep Mr. Higgins from spitting at him, Mr. Thomas said in an interview.

“The part of the video that bothered me the most was the fact that they took all that time to strap him in that restraining chair,” Mr. Thomas said.

“In my humble opinion, that’s where the negligence lies.” He added, “They didn’t call 911 soon enough.”

A medical examiner said Mr. Higgins died of “excited delirium” caused by large amounts of methamphetamine in his system, Mr. Thomas said.

That autopsy report made it difficult to pursue charges of homicide against the officers and affected the grand jury’s decision, he said.

“The jailer didn’t kill him,” Mr. Thomas said. “He died due to the fact that he had ingested massive amounts of methamphetamines and he became excited during the struggle and that was more than his system could handle.”

Lawyers for Mr. Higgins said they were planning to get a separate autopsy.

The prosecutor said he did not believe the videos would have made a difference to the grand jury.

“Ultimately, I was not going to indict the officers anyway because I don’t feel that they were guilty of criminal conduct,” he said.

To bring charges, he said, “I must be convinced the person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Did they act appropriately? There is a good argument they didn’t.”

Mr. Heipt, who has filed civil rights complaints in other similar cases, said Mr. Thomas, who is not named in the lawsuit, should have shown the videos to the grand jury.

“He has a duty to seek justice and find the truth,” Mr. Heipt said. “He inexplicably refused to show the most critical piece of evidence in the case to the grand jury.”



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