In late 2011, Elliott Williams, a U.S. army veteran, was arrested outside a Tulsa County Mariott hotel for the simple crime of misdemeanor obstruction. Williams—who had a history of psychological illness, and was reportedly in the midst of a mental breakdown—was allegedly thrown to the ground, and restrained with a knee pressed into his back. At booking, he was reportedly slammed to the ground once again as officers attempted to handcuff him.
Six days later, he was dead.
Now, a lawsuit filed by his family alleges the death—officially attributed to "complications of vertebrospinal injuries due to blunt force trauma"—is the result of prolonged neglect and indifference to Williams' medical needs while incarcerated in Tulsa County.
An exhaustive report published by The Daily Beast details the allegations around Williams' treatment while in jail. It claims that, despite ample evidence of Williams' deteriorating medical and mental health, he was denied appropriate care by jail officials who went so far as to question, and even mock, the severity of his injuries.
"This guy went almost six days and never got taken to the hospital with a broken neck,” a Williams’s family attorney explained to The Daily Beast. “They’re throwing food at him and making fun of him in the cell while he’s going through a horrific death. You wouldn’t do that to an animal or any living thing.”
It's a charge strongly refuted by Corbin Brewster, an attorney for then-Tulsa County sheriff Stanley Glanz, who was named in a 2013 federal lawsuit stemming from Williams' death. In court documents found by The Daily Beast, Brewster questions whether the lawsuit includes any evidence to suggest Williams was deliberately denied appropriate care while in jail, writing "despite medical staff’s incorrect diagnoses of Mr. Williams before his death, the undisputed evidence is that the medical professionals who examined and treated Mr. Williams sincerely believed he was faking paralysis."
Surveillance footage released as part of the lawsuit shows Williams being dragged naked into an interrogation room, where he lies on the floor as officials examine him, and then leave him alone.
Williams' death seems to fit into a larger, nationwide pattern of African American arrestees who are found dead under suspicious or unusual circumstances, after having been jailed for ostensibly minor infractions. In 2015, 28-year-old Sandra Bland was arrested for a traffic violation in Prairie View, Texas. Days later she was found hanged in her jail cell. Her death was officially ruled a suicide, with the possibility for a criminal indictment rejected by a grand jury. Her family, however, has moved forward with a wrongful death lawsuit against several parties involved in her arrest and incarceration. In the weeks immediately following Bland's death, at least four other African American women were found dead while in police custody, reports The Root.
While the Williams' family settled out of court with the private medical company contracted by the Tulsa Country jail to run their health care services, The Daily Beast reports that the suit against the county itself is still expected to go to trial.