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As Williams screamed frantically, police handcuffed the teenager and placed her inside a Chevrolet Impala police cruiser parked in front of the shopping center.
It was then that Williams began to desperately bang her head on the side window of the vehicle and the Plexiglas divider between the front and back seats of the cruiser. Her actions were caught by a camera inside the cruiser, and police recently showed the footage to Harding, Talley and members of the media. Harding says he counted the times the teen bashed her head against the glass: 17, he says. The blows were so hard, he adds, that the glass started to crack down the middle.
Leonard says Williams' actions prompted an officer to go to another squad car for an additional restraining device besides the handcuffs she already had on. Another officer ventured into the store to finish the paperwork.
"During the tape you can hear the cops outside the car talking about donating those clothes back to the store, talking about the clothes she had just bought," says Harding. "'Do you want us to donate the clothes back to the store?' — you can hear officers say [that] to her on the tape while they are standing outside."
Meanwhile, inside the cruiser, unbeknownst to the officers, Williams was treacherously wrapping the middle seatbelt around her neck three times in such a way that it caused her to choke. Eventually, her head dropped down.
"They are right there outside the vehicle, not watching her," says Harding. "They knew she was hitting her head, and claimed they were getting restraints, but weren't watching her, and you can hear her choking on the tape, it was so loud."
One of the officers returned with an extra restraining device, but according to the CMPD, the officers figured Williams was no longer in danger because she had stopped banging her head.
According to the tape, six minutes passed between the time Williams choked and the time an officer cut off the seatbelt with a knife. "They did check her because she had stopped responding," says Leonard. "They touched her, talked to her and could tell that she was breathing."
Harding saw it this way: "One cop opens the door and says, 'It look like she's still breathing,' and closes it. And one says [to Williams], 'If you don't give us your name, that is another day in jail and we're going to charge you with obstructing and resisting.'"
An officer then entered the front of the vehicle, told Williams she could still be charged as Jane Doe, and then exited the car. Then he shined a light on her from the side, opened the side door and finally discovered the seatbelt around the teenager's neck. He yelled out an expletive, and called the other officers for help in cutting off the seatbelt.
Williams was then taken out of the vehicle, where officers performed procedures to help her breathe while they waited for medics and the fire department to arrive. She was then rushed to the hospital where she remains.
Initial media coverage of the incident left questions unanswered, fuelling racially charged speculation about police brutality. The news that a young girl hanged herself while in custody seemed too astonishing to be true, and some critics wildly charged that it was an occurrence of depraved police brutality and that the explanation of attempted suicide was a cover-up. The incident even caught the attention of some Atlanta-based members of the Black Liberation Institute, who politicized the case during an unattended rally in front of the store on Jan. 7.
In response, the CMPD eventually released the video, which clearly dispels issues of brutality but leaves open questions about negligence on the part of the arresting officers. Williams' family has called on the officers involved to step down, and could pursue legal action against CMPD and the City of Charlotte. None of the officers involved have stepped down, but the department is still investing the case.
Generally, the police have no duty to protect individuals from harm before taking them into custody; however, when an individual is taken into custody, different standards come into play. Per the directives of the police department: "Visual observation of prisoners must be maintained by the transporting officers at all times. Under no circumstance will a prisoner in custody be left unattended in a transport vehicle."
Arguably, those directives were violated during the time Williams wrapped the belt around her neck. This could lead to a claim of negligence against the officers. Moreover, the family also could try to sue the officers' employers for an alleged civil rights violation.
"A Section 1983 civil rights action would be an allegation made on the behalf of this young woman that her constitutional rights were in some way violated on that tragic day," says Professor Scarlet Moore of the Charlotte School of Law. "Such a violation might potentially be an unlawful arrest, or conduct that constitutes deliberate indifference to her welfare."