Editorials

How did this 53-year-old man die in a Missouri jail? And why was it kept a secret?

Sister seeks answers to brother’s death while in police custody

Michelle Robinson of Kansas City, is seeking answers to her brother's death while in police custody. Her brother, 53-year-old Anthony Garner, died in police custody Dec. 19 in Pleasant Hill, Mo.
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Michelle Robinson of Kansas City, is seeking answers to her brother's death while in police custody. Her brother, 53-year-old Anthony Garner, died in police custody Dec. 19 in Pleasant Hill, Mo.

The circumstances surrounding the death of Anthony Garner inside a Pleasant Hill jail last month are shrouded in secrecy.

The 53-year-old father of two died Dec. 19 while in the custody of the Pleasant Hill Police Department. He had been arrested outside his mother’s home about 1 a.m. on outstanding warrants for unpaid tickets, most of them for traffic-related violations.

That was the last time Patsy Donald saw her son alive. Less than four hours later, officers found Garner unresponsive in his cell.

“We just want to know what happened to my son,” Donald said. “They’re really not telling us anything.”

The initial explanation provided — that Garner committed suicide in his jail cell — spurred more questions than answers for his family. And the lack of transparency surrounding this case has not inspired confidence.

Authorities were conspicuously slow to release any information about Garner’s death. The Pleasant Hill Police Department appeared intent on keeping this incident quiet. Officials never publicly disclosed the alleged suicide until The Star started asking questions nine days after Garner died.

Officers and staff are responsible for the welfare and safety of detainees. So how did Garner die in jail, allegedly from self-inflicted wounds?

If Garner did commit suicide, was there a breakdown in protocol? If so, officers and staff should be held accountable.

These are all questions that must be answered.

The Cass County Sheriff’s Office is conducting an independent investigation into Garner’s death while Pleasant Hill does its own internal investigation. The Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office is assisting in the inquiry as well.

An autopsy will determine how Garner died. That could take a few more weeks. Preliminary findings indicate that Garner took his own life, said Kevin Tieman, a captain with the Cass County Sheriff’s Office. Attempts by officers and EMS personnel to revive Garner were unsuccessful, he said.

“No further details are being released at this time due to the active investigation,” Tieman said.

A thorough inquiry is essential to determine who, if anyone, is culpable for a prisoner’s death. An investigation can reveal whether mistakes were made — so that officials can ensure that they are not repeated in the future.

“I just feel like whatever happened to my brother, it shouldn’t happen because he was in their care,” Garner’s sister, Michelle Robinson, said. “He was in police custody. They’re saying self-inflicted. I don’t understand how anything could happen like that in their care.”

How can the family — and the public — trust Pleasant Hill officials if they don’t provide a basic level of transparency? The police department often uses social media and its website to release information. Why didn’t officials publicly disclose Garner’s death immediately?

“Conducting an investigation at that time, the media was not our concern,” Pleasant Hill Police Lt. Mark Largent said. “The investigation was.”

Largent declined to say whether dashboard cameras captured Garner’s arrest or if surveillance video was used inside the jail.

“It will all be revealed upon the release of the investigation,” he said.

The mystery surrounding the death of Anthony Garner is concerning.

His family deserves answers. And Pleasant Hill police must be held accountable if procedures weren’t followed.

No one should die while in police custody. An arrest for traffic-related warrants is not a death sentence.

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