Questions surround woman’s death in Platte County sheriff’s transport van

Emma Lewis
Emma Lewis

Emma Lewis told the deputies she would kill herself.

Two Platte County Sheriff’s Office deputies had come to her Platte City home on June 9, the same day a judge granted an order of protection to Lewis’ daughter, Antonia Ingelse. Lewis’ increasingly erratic and aggressive behavior made Ingelse feel unsafe.

The order meant Lewis could not stay at the house on Missouri 92 that mother and daughter shared. But Lewis refused to leave, deputies say, and fought against being arrested.

The 50-year-old woman lifted her legs as dead weight as deputies secured her arms behind her in double-locked handcuffs. She flopped down and yelled, banging her head on the grass. She flipped onto her stomach and kicked at the deputies.

She had screamed the same warning several times by the time a third deputy arrived. She told the deputies she had tried suicide four times before and “would get it right this time,” a deputy wrote in a Platte County Sheriff’s Office incident report.

When a fourth deputy arrived with a transport van to take her to jail, Lewis tried to run in front of it. She fought deputies who held her down to secure a seat belt.

The drive to the Platte County Detention Center was short, just five minutes, according to the sheriff’s office. When deputies opened the rear door, Lewis was no longer screaming.

She was not breathing and was covered in vomit. Her body was face down on the van floor with her hands still bound behind her and a seat belt wrapped around her neck. Deputies tried but failed to revive her.

The law leaves no question, experts say, that law enforcement officers must ensure the safety and well-being of those in custody — whether someone briefly detained, someone with a medical or mental health issue, or a longtime inmate.

“The bottom line is when (law enforcement) take someone into custody, the officers are responsible for arrestee’s safety and welfare … period,” said Michael Lyman, a professor of criminal justice at Columbia College and a former criminal investigator.

Lyman also testified for the prosecution in the Freddie Gray police misconduct case in Baltimore. Gray was arrested in April 2015 and thrown into a transport van but wasn’t seat-belted in. He died of spinal injuries suffered during the ride.

The means that law enforcement use to keep detainees safe have rocked public conscience in recent years, as cases like Gray’s expose breakdowns in transportation policy and sometimes lead to official probes. Last week the state of Maryland dropped criminal charges against three officers involved with Gray’s transport. Three other officers had been acquitted in bench trials.

Whether Lewis’ death could have been prevented or was caused by an unforeseen medical issue will be determined in an external investigation by the neighboring Clay County Sheriff’s Office.

The investigation, which will likely include video footage from van cameras, should also reveal more details about the setup of the 2013 Ford E-350 van, whether Lewis was visible through a window in a barrier behind the driver and what kind of seat belt was used.

Sgt. Jeffrey Shanks, spokesman for the Platte County Sheriff's Office, said the department would not comment about the incident or how the agency transports inmates until the investigation is concluded. Shanks said the sheriff’s office is waiting for the results of the medical examiner’s toxicology examination.

Clay County Sheriff Paul Vescovo said his department would also decline to comment during the investigation.

National law enforcement agencies — such as the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies Inc. and the International Association of Chiefs of Police — show steps other agencies take to ensure those in their custody remain safe.

While guidelines differ in some ways, universal standards suggest that two major questions should be answered in the Platte County incident.

Should Lewis’ threats of suicide have prompted a different course of action? And why didn’t law enforcement know Lewis was in medical or mental distress until it was too late?

Born in Bakersfield, Calif., Lewis was the mother of two, as well as two stepchildren through her marriage to David Lewis in 2009, according to her obituary. Her obituary also suggests she spent time as a homemaker and volunteered for the Hillcrest Thrift Store and the Hillview Nursing and Rehabilitation Center of Platte City.

Other accounts indicate a more troubled history.

In the petition for order of protection filed by Ingelse, Lewis’ daughter, Ingelse suggests that before Lewis announced plans to divorce her husband and kicked him out of the house, her mother had been acting strangely and was prone to aggression.

“She was yelling in my face in a threatening manner, telling me that I could just get out,” Ingelse wrote in her petition for the order. “I was prepared for it to become physical. Her stance was as if she were going to cause physical harm. She is very unpredictable as far as her mood and her actions.”

A phone number for Ingelse at Lewis’ address and her cellphone number did not appear to be in service during the reporting of this story.

But shortly after her mother’s death, The Star did talk to Ingelse, who called Lewis a caregiver who “loved serving others.”

On the day Lewis died, deputies noted that Lewis announced she was not taking prescribed medication for bipolar disorder and repeatedly yelled her intentions to end her life.

Documents completed by Ingelse and the sheriff’s office indicate that the department was likely aware of Lewis’ history of aggression.

Ingelse notes in her order for protection that Lewis had been removed from her home for violent behavior before. At least one deputy indicated in the sheriff’s office report that he had been called to the Lewis residence on a previous occasion.

Documents also show that deputies were charged with delivering Ingelse’s petition for the protection order to her mother, and that petition included Ingelse’s descriptions of her mother’s violent tendencies.

As for Platte County Detention Center’s transportation policy, a manual provided to The Star states that deputies are expected to search prisoners and transport vans for contraband, make sure detainees are properly restrained and bring in an additional officer if an inmate has a history of violence or has refused to cooperate.

Across the country, many law enforcement policies require agencies to ensure medical treatment or psychiatric care when necessary or requested.

Calling an ambulance from the start is also an option if a detainee is physically distressed or mentally unstable.

“If they are completely spazzing out and uncontrollable, they may want to take them to a hospital with a psych ward,” Lyman said. “It really is a judgment call.”

Other standards suggest keeping a detainee safe until an individual can undergo an evaluation when he or she is booked into jail. The International Association of Chiefs of Police instructs officers to watch detainees closely and report suicidal signs to booking officers.

Platte County Detention Center policy suggests that, similarly, arrestees undergo mental health assessments, but not until processing at the jail. The standards indicate that Lewis’ state of mind would likely have met criteria for close observation once she reached the detention center.

“All detainees will be screened for suicidal behavior and ideation during their medical assessment in the intake process,” states the Platte County Detention Center policy.

The staff can then decide to transfer someone to a mental health facility.

Criteria for responding to a mentally distraught arrestee during transport are not as clear. The Platte County procedures don’t appear to specifically state that deputies must keep detainees in their line of sight, for instance.

Constant visual observation is a standard for other law enforcement agencies. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, officers must be aware of the prisoner’s physical well-being and maintain “constant visual observation of prisoners at all times.”

Many vans are equipped with cameras, and other agencies have policies about where a person is seated in the car so drivers or other officers can best view those in custody.

Riding in the back with a person in distress is also an option, said Lyman, the criminal justice professor from Columbia.

Platte County Detention Center procedures state that if an inmate is at high risk, two officers are assigned to the transport. One is supposed to watch the detainee.

A report shows that at least four deputies were eventually present when Lewis was loaded into the van.

But just one deputy drove the vehicle. Two others followed separately. It’s not clear what a fourth deputy did from incident reports. It is not clear whether the driver could view Lewis through the barrier window.

The report indicates that Lewis was handcuffed behind her back and secured in a seat belt in the van — a universal transportation standard.

“If you’ve got someone who is combative, that’s going to be a real chore to be able to do this,” said Timothy Baysinger, the regional program manager for the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

When a detainee is violent or mentally disturbed, officers have more license to use additional restraints, such as leg restraints or straps.

The Platte County incident report does not indicate that Lewis was restrained in any additional way. She was found “laying face down in the middle of the floor of the jail van, with her head toward the cab” and a seat belt around her neck. Her hands were still handcuffed behind her, a deputy noted.

“This suggests that she wasn’t secured properly or it suggests that she wasn’t secured at all,” said Lyman, the professor. “You put them in handcuffs and you put them in the seat belt and they aren’t going anywhere if they are properly secured.”

The CALEA regional manager, who is not involved in the case, disagrees.

“People slip out of seat belts, they slip out of handcuffs. It just happens,” Baysinger said. “When you get that difficult, combative person, there are a lot of things that can happen in a short time period.”

Katy Bergen: 816-234-4120, @KatyBergen

Glenn E. Rice: 816-234-4341, @GRicekcstar

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