Police Commission rules officers were not involved in controversial case of woman who died in LAPD jail cell

Emotions ran high at the Police Commission’s weekly meeting Tuesday, where dozens of people waited hours to hear the board rule that officers were not “substantially involved” in the death of a woman inside a Los Angeles jail cell. 

For months, activists have criticized the Los Angeles Police Department over Wakiesha Wilson’s death, chanting her name at the commission’s weekly meetings and demanding to know more about how she died. Coroner’s officials said Wilson committed suicide by hanging herself in the cell, though her family almost immediately questioned the account.

“Say her name!” people in the packed room shouted Tuesday. “No justice, no peace!”

That evening, the 10-month investigation into Wilson’s death came to a close after the commission — which reviews all deaths that occur in LAPD custody — unanimously determined officers did not use force against Wilson. 

The board, however, directed its inspector general to review all deaths at LAPD jails within the last five years, looking for “any trends or recurrent issues.” The inspector general was also assigned the task of reviewing the LAPD’s policies for screening inmates to determine whether existing procedures sufficiently identify those who may have mental or physical issues.

As Matt Johnson, the commission’s president, announced the findings and expressed condolences to Wilson’s family, her mother sobbed in the audience. Activists enveloped Lisa Hines in a hug as her sister shouted profanities. Hines later fainted.

“They killed my baby,” she cried.

“The commission uses every case we review as an opportunity to identify ways we can improve the department,” Johnson said after the meeting. “We are using this incident as a catalyst to review other issues related to in-custody deaths to see if there are other areas we can identify for improvement.”

LAPD officers arrested Wilson early March 26, after the 36-year-old was accused of punching a patient at a downtown hospital. Wilson had checked herself into the hospital earlier for back and chest pain, according to a redacted copy of a report LAPD Chief Charlie Beck submitted to the Police Commission.

Officers initially took Wilson to an LAPD station, Beck’s report said. When asked whether she felt suicidal or felt like hurting herself, Wilson said no, the report said. A medical form completed at the station indicated that Wilson said she “had mental health issues,” though Beck said officers did not know details of those reported issues when they later booked her.

Officers then took Wilson to the LAPD’s Metropolitan Detention Center just a few blocks from the police station. Again, Wilson denied having suicidal thoughts, according to Beck’s report.

The woman who shared a cell with Wilson later told investigators that Wilson was “aggressive and just wanted to get out,” according to Beck’s report. Wilson wrapped her shirt around her neck, the inmate added, and said, “Let me out. Let me out. I’m suicidal.”

Beck’s report said the inmate did not report Wilson’s actions or comments to jail staff.

Meanwhile, one detention officer told another to “keep an eye on Wilson because she seemed to be kind of out of it and was acting a little strange” but did not elaborate, Beck’s report said. When it came time to move the inmates back to a cellblock, the report said, officers decided to keep Wilson alone in her cell because she was “uncooperative.”

About 35 minutes later, a detention officer spotted Wilson on the floor. Wilson had tied a piece of clothing around the cord of a telephone in the cell, investigators said, and hanged herself.

Wilson’s family has questioned why she would commit suicide, saying there were no signs that she was distraught when she spoke to relatives on the phone after her arrest.

Beck’s report said the LAPD launched two internal investigations into the actions of some of the detention officers who had contact with Wilson: one who decided to keep Wilson alone in the cell without getting proper approval, and two officers who didn’t “immediately” try to resuscitate Wilson when they found her. 

The names of those detention officers were redacted from the copy of Beck’s report made public Tuesday.

The LAPD is replacing the phones in most of its jail cells this year with phones that don’t have cords, Beck’s report said. The department is also reviewing its policy outlining when jail staff should contact a specially trained mental health unit about an inmate.

In the months after Wilson’s death, officials were repeatedly criticized for their handling of the case, particularly the delay in notifying Wilson’s mother of her death. Hines said she learned Wilson had died only after she didn’t appear in court days later.

Hines regularly attended Police Commission meetings, where she and others have demanded to see any video from inside the jail cell where Wilson died. On Tuesday, activists and others echoed that plea.

“If there is a video, whatever it shows … please release it,” said Pastor Mike Cummings, a community activist who works in Watts. “Give Mama some closure. Give Lisa Hines some closure.”

kate.mather@latimes.com

@katemather

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