Missouri police violated own policy, let man keep belt in jail. He hanged himself

Family, victim advocate call for transparency after Pleasant Hill jail death

Family members of Anthony Garner and the AdHoc Group Against Crime gathered Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, at Church of Faith in Kansas City to call on transparency from law enforcement after Garner was found dead in a Pleasant Hill, Mo., jail cell.
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Family members of Anthony Garner and the AdHoc Group Against Crime gathered Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, at Church of Faith in Kansas City to call on transparency from law enforcement after Garner was found dead in a Pleasant Hill, Mo., jail cell.

The Pleasant Hill Police Department defied its own written policy when officers placed Anthony Phillip Garner in a city jail cell while he was still wearing his belt, according to an autopsy report and law enforcement documents.

Garner later used the belt to hang himself. His death wasn’t discovered for almost two hours.

After Garner’s Dec. 19 death was ruled a suicide, the Police Department is conducting its own administrative investigation.

The night he died, the 53-year-old had been pulled over for a missing front license plate and then arrested on outstanding warrants. He was later found dead in his cell.

The Jackson County Medical Examiner who performed the autopsy ruled Garner’s death a suicide. An investigation by the Cass County Sheriff’s Office concluded that Garner intentionally hanged himself with his own brown, leather belt.

The Police Department’s written policies say that an arrested person’s belt should be removed before they are placed in a cell, for safety reasons.

Family members have challenged the police version of what happened and community leaders expressed concern about why relatives were not immediately informed.

“There are deep concerns that we have in reference to the treatment the family received in this case,” said Damon Daniel, president of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime, who has worked with Garner’s family. “After the notification of Mr. Garners death, there was no contact initiated by law enforcement as to the status of the investigation nor was there much direction given by them to direct the family to support services.”

Daniel continued: “If law enforcement agencies want to truly improve relationships, particularly with communities of color, it should begin with common courtesy regardless of the circumstances.”

Pleasant Hill, like other police departments, require their officers and detention workers to search and remove “anything that could create a security or suicide risk, such as contraband, hazardous items, belts, shoes or shoelaces and jackets.”

Reached this week by phone, Pleasant Hill Police Chief Robert Driscoll declined to speak directly about what happened to Garner the evening of Dec. 19 or explain why officers did not remove Garner’s belt.

According to the sheriff’s office investigation, a Pleasant Hill police sergeant told Cass County investigators that it is their practice to leave inmates with their property as long as “they present no concerns.”

“When the medical examiner and the sheriff’s office closed their investigations on the 31st of January, we opened an administrative investigation on Feb. 1 and that administrative investigation surrounding the events of Mr. Garner’s death is ongoing at this time,” Driscoll told The Star.

Driscoll declined to say if any of the officers faced discipline. He also did not share any details of how the administrative investigation is being conducted.

“I am not going to speak to the events of that investigation at this point,” Driscoll said. “I am not going to comment on an ongoing investigation.”

Police departments in cities such as Kansas City, Lee’s Summit and Overland Park also have policies governing arrest and detention that all require detainees to be searched and to have any belts, shoelaces, jewelry and other items removed.

It is widely considered a standard procedure for the safety of inmates and those around them, said Kansas City police spokesman Sgt. Jacob Becchina.

In addition to confiscating the prisoner’s shoes, socks and belts, Overland Park police require that inmates remain under constant video surveillance.

Pleasant Hill police have the same surveillance requirement and also require jail workers to conduct safety checks, “no less than every 15 minutes.”

But it appears that didn’t happen in Garner’s case, according to incident reports and other investigative records obtained by The Star.

Those reports say jail workers failed to check on Garner for nearly two hours, during which time he hanged himself with the belt, according to the investigation.

Garner was locked in a jail cell about 1:30 a.m.

He was last checked on about 2:30 a.m., when he complained that his shoulder was injured during his arrest and asked for some Tylenol. An officer at the jail gave Garner a pain reliever, according to the sheriff’s office report.

Once left alone, video surveillance of the jail cell showed, Garner attached his belt to the cell door and put the end around his neck.

After several minutes, Garner climbed the cell door.

Garner then let himself fall with no support underneath his body. He made no attempt to regain a foothold or support himself, a sheriff’s office report says.

By 2:42 a.m., Garner stopped moving.

It wasn’t until an hour and 43 minutes later, at 4:25 a.m., that an officer noticed Garner on a surveillance video feed into the Police Department’s dispatch and rushed to the jail cell. The officer pulled Garner down and began CPR.

Emergency crews arrived and pronounced Garner dead.

The medical examiner found bruises that partially encircled Garner’s neck. The markings were consistent with the ligature used around Garner’s neck, deputy Jackson County medical examiner, Lindsey J. Haldiman noted in her report.

Haldiman also reported that Garner had cocaine and marijuana in his system.

A traffic stop

Garner’s family still questions whether he killed himself.

Relatives have said they knew of no reason why he would do it.

The officers who arrested Garner that evening said he never gave them any indication that he wanted to harm himself.

Daniel, who leads the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime, has been working with Garner’s family to get more information about what happened.

“Now that the cause of death is public and the investigation is closed, the family is still left with obvious questions concerning detaining procedures, roles and responsibilities of those working in the jail and much more,” Daniel said.

“The community and law enforcement agencies need each other. We know that they are human beings providing a much-needed service. However, the community’s expectation is to be treated with compassion, dignity and respect.”

Garner and his wife Yvonne had moved to Pleasant Hill to live with his mother.

On the day he died, Garner had left his mother’s house to buy cigarettes. During the ride back home, an officer pulled behind and ordered Garner to pull over because of a missing front license plate.

Instead, Garner drove on to his mother’s house and got out of the car.

According to police, Garner resisted arrest and suffered a bruised shoulder after struggling with officers. As he was being searched, Garner allegedly pulled out of his pocket a glass pipe and threw it on the ground. An officer found the glass pipe.

Paramedics checked out Garner and determined the injury was not serious.

A computer check showed Garner had outstanding arrest warrants in Kansas City that ranged from fleeing officers, hindering an arrest, driving with a suspended driver’s license, animal neglect and driving without insurance. The bond totaled $15,422.

Pleasant Hill police contacted Kansas City police and held Garner in custody.

A few hours later, Garner was found hanging by his belt inside the jail cell.

Some time later, a pair of officers drove to the home of Garner’s mother, Patsy Donald, to tell her that her son was dead.

According the investigators’ report, a sergeant said he knelt in front of Garner’s mother and explained that her son died in the city’s jail cell. He said the death appeared to be a suicide.

Patsy Donald appeared to be shocked at first, the report said. Then she said she knew this was going to happen.

She said “you killed my son,” according to the report.

Garner’s mother asked the officers to leave. As they did, she screamed from her front porch, “they killed my son.”

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Glenn E. Rice covers crime, courts and breaking news for The Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 1988. Rice is a Kansas City native and a graduate of the University of Central Missouri.