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A Texas sheriff fired 11 department employees and suspended six others without pay this week in connection with the death of an inmate who was found unresponsive in his cell in February after allegedly being hit multiple times by officers.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said Friday that the terminated employees “betrayed my trust and the trust of our community,” in their treatment of Jaquaree Simmons, 23, who allegedly had three altercations with detention officers on Feb. 16, a three-month sheriff’s office internal investigation found.
Simmons had been booked into jail on weapons charges a week earlier, according to Houston Public Media.
On the morning of Feb. 16, Simmons clogged his toilet with his clothes and after officers went in to clean the flooded cell they returned him to his cell stripped of his clothes, a policy violation that was allegedly not reported.
“When removing an inmates clothes, you’re supposed to advise a supervisor, you’re supposed to increase the rate in which you conduct visual checks, and you’re supposed to provide a suicide smock,” Major Thomas Diaz of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office said, according to Houston Public Media. “None of those occurred.”
Later that night, a detention officer allegedly hit Simmons in the face after he threw his meal tray at the officer and charged at him, according to authorities. When more officers were called in to take him for a medical evaluation, they hit him multiple times in the head, Diaz, who led the internal affairs investigation, said.
Simmons told a jail doctor he didn’t have any pain, just cuts to his face, and was returned to his cell. Officers failed to bring him back to the clinic for follow-up X-rays, Diaz said and he was found unresponsive in his cell at noon on Feb. 17. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
The incident occurred against the backdrop of the deadly Texas winter storm.
The investigation found that detention officers had failed to do visual checks of the inmates in the cell pod where Simmons was being held from Feb. 15 until the moments before he was found in his cell Feb. 17, Diaz said. Usually, these checks are done electronically, but the system was down due to the winter storm, according to authorities.
Medical examiners ruled Simmons’ death a homicide from injuries to his head.
“They abused their authority,” Gonzalez continued in his rebuke. “Their conduct toward Mr. Simmons was reprehensible. They showed complete disregard for the safety and wellbeing of a person they were directly responsible for protecting. They escalated rather than de-escalated the situation. Their conduct was unacceptable and inexcusable and their acts discredit them, the sheriff’s office and their fellow employees. None of them deserve to wear to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office Patch ever again.”
The fired officers violated department policies that included excessive force, failing to document the use of force, not intervening when a fellow officer used force and making false statements to investigators, Diaz said.
Gonzalez said that unless the suspended officers “exhibit immediate and consistent compliance with and adherence to all sheriff’s office policies,” they could face further discipline or termination.
“I understand that these disciplinary actions in no way make up for what happened to Jaquaree Simmons inside our jail but I owe it to him, to his mother and to our community to do everything in my power to ensure those who had a hand in it are held accountable and that this sort of thing never happens again,” he said, according to KPRC-TV in Houston.
After the announcement of the firings, Simmons’ mother LaRhonda Biggles said she just wants justice for her son.
“Every day I go through not being able to eat, not being able to sleep, and so do my children,” she said, KPRC reported. “I want them arrested. I want them to take accountability for what they did to my son.”
President Biden nominated Gonzalez last month to head U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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