At least 18 people died in the custody of Milwaukee County law enforcement agencies in the five years ending in 2012, not including suspects shot by police, says the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. At least 10 had medical or psychiatric conditions that were improperly monitored or left untreated by authorities. None of the 18 custody deaths resulted in criminal charges against an officer. Discipline was handed down in just two cases and the punishment of many officers was overturned. In the aftermath of in-custody deaths, pathologists, prosecutors and law enforcement rely on each other’s sometimes-flawed conclusions, ensuring no one is held accountable.
Medical examiners get much information about a death from police. The district attorney doesn’t file charges if the cause of death is natural or suicide, even if there is negligence that could be prosecuted. Police agencies cite the prosecutor’s decision when they don’t discipline officers for rule violations that aren’t criminal but endanger prisoners. Retired law Prof. Fred Cohen of the State University of New York at Albany, a monitor in federal civil rights cases involving prisoners, said cozy relationships compromise the credibility of investigations. He said some custody deaths are inevitable but it is “inherently unreasonable” to conclude all of them are.