Ernest Lacy, 22

Milwaukee, Wisconsin
July 09, 1981

Agencies: Milwaukee Police Department Wisconsin

Cause of death: Beating

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Last updated: over 5 years ago


A 22-year-old man dies in Milwaukee police custody after officers fail to get him urgent medical attention. An internal investigation finds police did nothing wrong, despite cuts and bruises all over the man's body. The community is outraged. The department promises training and changes to the system.

Thirty years ago, that sequence of events described the death of Ernest Lacy. Today, the same set of circumstances applies to the July 2011 death of Derek Williams. Police chiefs, city leaders and state lawmakers have promised new laws, tougher policies and better training following Lacy's death and others like it over the past three decades. The same assurances are being made in the wake of Williams' death.

But time and again, the department - from commanders to front-line officers - reverts to its old ways once the spotlight fades, a Journal Sentinel investigation found.

Then someone else dies and the same reforms are proposed again:

  • Since 1983, it has been a crime for police to fail to render aid to a prisoner. A long-standing department policy requires officers to monitor prisoners' medical conditions and call paramedics if necessary. Last month, amid the public outcry over Williams' death, Chief Edward Flynn issued a directive that takes away officers' discretion and requires them to do what they had already been taught: Call for help if someone in custody is having trouble breathing, bleeding profusely or experiencing moderate to severe pain.
  • In 1992, authorities created a review board to evaluate incidents in which citizens were injured, killed or shot by police officers. By 1997, it had been dismantled. Last month, Flynn announced the formation of a new board to do the same thing.
  • Since at least 1994, police have been trained repeatedly not to press their knees into the backs of suspects who are facedown and handcuffed, yet that's what an officer did to Williams, according to incident reports.

Reforms are not effective unless people take them seriously, said Laura R. Woliver of the University of South Carolina, who researched the Lacy case for her 1993 book, "From Outrage to Action: The Politics of Grass-Roots Dissent."

"It happens again because some of the reforms were just superficial, because the underlying structure that set up these confrontations hasn't changed," she said. "The training might not take if the people who are being trained don't have the passion to change their behavior."

Flynn has denied repeated interview requests. Approached by a reporter before a Fire and Police Commission meeting earlier this month, he said his goal is for those in the department to continue learning. He said he couldn't speak to whether his recently announced policies and procedures would be more effective than their counterparts in the past.

"We have to deal with the challenges that we confront, and this is an opportunity for us to put together something that can help us learn from critical events that could've been handled perhaps differently if we had had the appropriate training and protocols in place," Flynn said.

Injured in arrest

Lacy was arrested July 9, 1981.

He was picked up by police at 11:07 p.m. on the 2200 block of W. Wisconsin Ave. after a woman reported being raped by a black man. Officers were walking Lacy to a squad car when he tried to run away, police told the medical examiner. Lacy - who did not commit the rape - and the officers fell to the ground in the ensuing struggle, according to the police version of events.

The medical examiner documented more than 30 cuts and bruises on Lacy's body, according to the report, which the Journal Sentinel reviewed this month. Police, however, "claimed that they struck no blows during the struggle," the report says.

Witnesses said police held Lacy facedown in a gutter, with a knee on his back.

Officers placed a handcuffed Lacy on the floor in the back of a police wagon, according to the report. He was conscious, police told the medical examiner, "but apparently not alert enough to sit on one of the seats in the van." By 11:26 p.m., another prisoner noticed that Lacy was unconscious. Paramedics were called at 11:28 p.m. and arrived within three minutes. Lacy was pronounced dead about an hour later.

After three autopsies, the medical examiner ruled the manner of Lacy's death "undetermined."

Within days, community groups formed the Coalition for Justice for Ernest Lacy, staging demonstrations, lobbying for legislation and demanding the officers be held accountable and Chief Harold Breier be removed. The Common Council requested an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Breier quickly announced the officers had done nothing wrong.

The Milwaukee County district attorney's office and the Police Department's internal affairs division reopened their investigations after numerous public demonstrations.

One of the officers involved in Lacy's arrest eventually was fired for excessive force; four others were suspended. Then-District Attorney E. Michael McCann convened an inquest, which lasted 21 days and included more than 100 witnesses. Jurors recommended charges of reckless homicide and misconduct in public office. McCann issued the misconduct charges, but a judge later threw them out because there was no law on the books making it a crime for officers to fail to render first aid.

Breier refused to cooperate with the federal investigation, and the Justice Department did not pursue a federal civil rights lawsuit against police.

Community and Family Efforts

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