HOUSTON (AP) — Eleven employees with a Texas sheriff’s office have been fired and six others suspended following the February death of an inmate who was hit multiple times in the head by detention officers, authorities announced Friday.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said he was “very upset and heartbroken” about what a three-month investigation into the death of 23-year-old Jaquaree Simmons found. Medical examiners had ruled Simmons’ death a homicide from injuries to his head.
“We have a duty to protect those in our care and that didn’t happen,” Gonzalez said.
A sheriff’s office internal affairs investigation concluded Simmons had three fights with detention officers on Feb. 16 when the jail had lost power and water pressure during the state’s deadly winter storm.
The first use of force against Simmons took place that morning after he had clogged the toilet of his jail cell and officers responded to clean it.
Later that night, a detention officer hit Simmons in the face after he had thrown 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, said Major Thomas Diaz, who led the internal affairs investigation.
Simmons was evaluated by a doctor at a jail clinic and had a cut to his left eyebrow and upper lip but reported no pain. He was taken back to his cell, but officers failed to bring him back to the clinic for follow-up X-rays, according to Diaz.
Simmons was found unresponsive in his cell at 12:10 p.m. on Feb. 17 and was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
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 on Feb. 17, Diaz said. Usually these checks are done electronically, but the system was down due to the winter storm, according to authorities.
The officers who were fired or suspended were found to have violated various policies, including using 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.
“These 11 people betrayed my trust and the trust of our community. They abused their authority,” Gonzalez said. “Their conduct toward Mr. Simmons was reprehensible.”
The 11 employees who were fired included nine detention officers, one detention sergeant and one deputy. The six who were suspended included four detention officers, one detention sergeant and one sheriff’s office sergeant. Their suspensions ranged from three to 10 days.
Houston police are still conducting a separate criminal investigation into Simmons’ death. The results of that probe will be presented to the Harris County District Attorney's Office, which will determine if charges are filed.
While Gonzalez declined to comment on the criminal investigation, he said he believes crimes were committed in connection with Simmons’ death.
On Feb. 10, Simmons has been booked into the county jail on a charge of a felon in possession of a firearm. Diaz said Simmons had no health issues when he came to the jail.
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Juan A. Lozano, The Associated Press