Five North Carolina police officers who resigned following the death of a suspect in custody "knew or should have known" the man was in desperate need for medical help, their chief said Thursday.
Harold Easter, 41, died earlier this year from a cocaine overdose after he sat unattended in a police interview room for several valuable minutes, when he could have been seen by a doctor, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Johnny Jennings told reporters.
According to a timeline provided by the Mecklenburg County district attorney’s office, Easter was the subject of a narcotics investigation, pulled over in the vehicle he was driving and arrested at 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 23. He was transported to the CMPD Metro Division Office and placed in an interview room at 12:19 p.m., where he was not continuously supervised. At 1:06 p.m, he fell to the floor. At approximately 1:13 p.m., an officer found him and called for medical help.
Jennings said it was clear that Easter had swallowed a dangerous amount of cocaine and needed help as soon as he was arrested. The chief also accused officers of leaving him in an interview room for more than 15 minutes, in violation of department rules.
"It's clear to me that the officers knew — or should have known — based on comments made by the officers, based on comments made from Mr. Easter himself," Jennings said. "There's no doubt in my mind that officers either knew or should have known that he had ingested cocaine."
The chief, however, left open the chance that Easter might have died even with more immediate care.
"I believe if they had followed policy, we would have at the minimum given Harold Easter a chance," he said. "I can tell you we have a responsibility to at least give him that chance to survive, and that's what officers failed to do."
Video released under court order on Thursday and seen by NBC News showed Easter in the interview room, ranting incoherently for about a half hour. He eventually slowed his speech, slumped in his chair, over a table and then on to the floor.
"I am going to die," Easter said at one point.
Shortly after Easter fell to the floor, an officer who came into the room immediately yelled out, "Get medic!"
Easter was rushed to the hospital and died three days later.
CMPD spokesman Rob Tufano on Thursday warned anyone seeking to watch the video that it was disturbing.
"Incredibly tough, tough stuff to watch, excruciating stuff to watch," Tufano said. "You're watching a 41-year-old man lose his life."
None of the now-former officers involved — Sgt. Nicolas Vincent, Officers Brentley Vinson, Michael Benfield, Michael Joseph and Shon Sheffield — was criminally charged. They resigned earlier this week.
A representative for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing officers, could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday afternoon. It was unclear if any of the officers had legal representation.
A Sept. 21 report by Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation said "there was a brief struggle between Officer Sheffield and the decedent during which the decedent either continued to eat, or tried to eat, cocaine."
Officer Joseph was recorded on body-camera video telling Easter, who complained of dehydration, "You've got cocaine on your tongue. It's going to happen when you try to eat cocaine," according to Merriweather's report.
The DA’s report on whether the officers’ actions were unlawful sad he would not seek criminal charges, writing that prosecutors would not be able to convince jurors that any officers "culpably failed to obtain medical attention" and that — in consultation three different medical experts — he can't "prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the decedent would have lived had officers sought medical attention immediately."
Merriweather in the report added there there was no video of Easter “ingesting any contraband in the presence of officers” and “no footage containing indisputable admissions by Mr. Easter to officers to having eaten contraband.”
Merriweather said he consulted with multiple medical experts and other Assistant District Attorneys while conducting the investigation. He also presented the findings to the District Attorney's Officer-Involved Shooting Review Team for their expertise in "the laws surrounding fatal
incidents that involve officers."
Police Chief Jennings on Thursday said, "I don't believe these officers had malicious intent, but they did make a bad decision and they didn't follow policy."
"So these bad decisions have consequences, especially when those decisions have contributed to the loss of a life, a life that we had the responsibility to protect,” he said of the traffic stop gone wrong. “Someone that's in our custody is also in our care."