Eleven workers in a Texas sheriff’s office have been fired and six suspended following the death of an inmate who was repeatedly punched in the head by detention officers, authorities said on Friday.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said he was “very upset and heartbroken” after a three-month investigation into the death of Jaquaree Simmons, 23, in February. Forensic scientists have ruled Simmons’ death a homicide caused by head injuries.
“We have a duty to protect those entrusted to us and that has not happened,” Gonzalez said.
An internal affairs investigation from the Sheriff’s Office concluded that Simmons had three brawls with detention officers on February 16, when the jail lost power and water pressure during a deadly winter storm.
The first use of force against Simmons came that morning after he clogged the toilet in his prison cell and officers responded to clean it out. That night, a detention officer punched Simmons in the face after throwing his lunch tray at the officer and charged him, authorities said. When other officers were called in to take him for a medical assessment, they hit him on the head several times, said Major Thomas Diaz, who led the investigation.
Simmons was evaluated by a doctor at a prison clinic and had a cut to his left eyebrow and upper lip, but reported no pain. He was returned to his cell, but officers were unable to return him to the clinic for follow-up x-rays, according to Diaz.
Simmons was found unconscious in his cell at 12:10 p.m. on February 17 and was taken to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The investigation found that detention officers did not perform visual checks of inmates in the cell where Simmons was being held from February 15 until moments before his discovery, Diaz said. Usually these checks are done electronically, but the system was down due to the winter storm.
The dismissed or suspended officers violated policies, including using excessive force, failing to document the use of force, failing to intervene when a colleague used force and making false statements to investigators, Diaz said.
“These 11 people have betrayed my trust and the trust of our community. They abused their authority, ”Gonzalez said. “Their conduct towards Mr. Simmons was reprehensible. “
The 11 dismissed employees included nine detention officers, a detention sergeant and a deputy. The six people suspended included four detention officers, a detention sergeant and a sergeant from the sheriff’s office. Their suspensions ranged from three to ten days.
Houston Police are conducting a separate criminal investigation. The results will be presented to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, which will determine whether charges are laid.
While Gonzalez declined to comment on the criminal investigation, he said he believed crimes were committed in connection with Simmons’ death.
On February 10, Simmons was incarcerated in the county jail for a felon in possession of a gun. Diaz said he had no health problems.