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Five Fort Worth police officers were fired Tuesday for their roles in the death of a man who died in custody.
In a statement, police identified the terminated officers as T. Stephens, D. Pritzker, C. Golden, H. Fellhauer and M. Miller. A sixth officer, S. Smith, was suspended without pay for 90 days and a seventh, A. Scharf, was suspended for five days.
All were patrol officers, according to police.
On July 26, the officers responded to a report of a prowler in the 3300 block of Griggs Avenue and took an armed man, who they said was attempting to break into a house, into custody.
The man was later identified as Christopher Lowe, 55, although police did not identify Lowe in their statement.
The department said the arrested man began to complain about medical issues on the way to the station, but officers did not call for medical aid.
The officers left him handcuffed in the back of the patrol car as they interviewed witnesses. They returned to find him unresponsive, they said.
Police called an ambulance and the man was taken to John Peter Smith Hospital where he was pronounced dead, police said.
The Tarrant County medical examiner’s office listed his time of death at 10:47 p.m. July 26. It said he died from cocaine intoxication and his death was ruled an accident.
The Fort Worth Police Department Major Case Unit and Internal Affairs Unit began investigating the man’s death, according to police.
The investigation determined the officers committed multiple violations of departmental policy, including failure to protect the rights of persons in police custody, according to police.
“The actions taken by the officers involved in this incident discovered during our investigation are not in accordance with the values of the Fort Worth Police Department or the standards that the citizens of Fort Worth have for their police department,” police said in a statement. “We hope that the administrative conclusion of this case is an assurance to the residents of Fort Worth that we are able to identify and properly address any issues that may arise during police incidents.”
Police said Chief Joel Fitzgerald and other supervisors have been in regular contact with the man’s family, who requested privacy.
Manny Ramirez, president of the Fort Worth Police Officer’s Association, said his organization is still trying to gather facts surrounding the dismissals. Ramirez said he cannot remember a time when five officers have been fired in connection with the same incident. This is unprecedented, he said.
“We were surprised by the chain-of-command decision handed down today,” Ramirez said. “This was unexpected.”
The POA will continue to advocate for the due process rights for all the officers involved on the front end and on the back end, Ramirez said. The organization is there to make sure no one is treated differently than anyone else.
“We are affected just as deeply as the citizens when there is a loss of life,” he said. “That’s an officer’s worst day.”
Michael Bell, activist and pastor of Greater St. Stephen First Church, said people in Fort Worth’s African-American community will be surprised by the disciplinary measures. Bell, who has been asking that police release video footage of the incident, said the family has been reluctant to come out publicly because of fear of retaliation from police.
This is the right ruling, Bell said. Police officers had an obligation to get Lowe medical attention, he said.
“Maybe this is an indication that Fort Worth is going to start addressing the lingering issues of race and bigotry,” Bell said. “Because really the Fort Worth Way would not have allowed this. The Fort Worth Way would have been to criminalize the victim.”