The investigation into the death of Eric Perez

Eric Perez

Eric Perez

Eric Perez was just days into his eighteenth year when his life ended suddenly. The circumstances surrounding his death are both tragic and disturbing. Eric died within the care of the Palm Beach Regional Detention Center where he was incarcerated because he had been caught with a small amount of marijuana while riding a bike with a broken light.

The offense was relatively minor, but the consequences weren’t.

The Incident

In March 0f 2012, State Attorney Michael McAuliffe released the grand jury presentment pertaining to Eric’s death. The document contains information about the last hours of the young man’s life based on interviews, reports, and surveillance video. The picture painted by State Attorney McAuliffe, to the grand jury, is not a pleasant one.

On the evening of July 9th of 2011, Eric accompanied the other male juveniles from module B-2 to the cafeteria to eat some snacks. It was almost 8 p.m. Before leaving the cafeteria, the three officers that brought the boys began conducting searches to ensure that no one took any of the snacks with them upon leaving.

The officers and the youths were observed on video joking and laughing during the process. The report states, “The DJJ officers also appeared to be engaging in horseplay with the youths while the searches took place.”

At some point, Eric was accused of trying to take a snack back to where he was housed. Though the report describes the officers and the youths as laughing during the search, it also points out that during the search Eric was “roughly tossed in the air, striking the wall and/or floor with his head and/or shoulder as he came back down.”

Eric left the cafeteria appearing unsteady on his feet. Within a fairly short amount of time the report stated that Eric once again appeared normal. He was sent to bed at about 9:30 p.m.

At about 1:30 a.m. Eric’s cell mates called an officer into the are because Eric was screaming. His cries became louder as he yelled for someone to “get it off me, get it off me.” The officer who responded reported that Eric was hallucinating and subsequently called the supervisor.

By the time the supervisor arrived, Eric was staggering around inside his cell. The officers asked Eric to leave the cell, which he did by crawling since he did not appear to be able to stand. Eric laid down on the floor and rolled from side to side. He screamed that his head hurt.

While Eric lay on the floor, the officers began to review his medical chart. The report states that Eric “then rose to his feet, using the wall for balance, before he stumbled forward, fell, and appeared to strike his head on the corner of the table.”

The officers observed all of this take place, but no one did anything to help the teen. Instead, Eric was given a mattress pad to lie down on in the common area of the facility. Officers helped him onto the pad and then covered him with sheet. Eric appeared to fall asleep on the pad.

At about 2:22 a.m., Eric awoke. He rolled off his mattress and then vomited on the floor. He also lost control of his bowels and was reported as defecating in his clothing. and underwear. Officers tried to help Eric to his feet but he could not stand.

Despite the alarming turn of events, no attempt was made to contact 911 or to seek medical assistance for the teen. It was not until 2:39 a.m. that the supervisor made the first call to the superintendent of the facility. He reported that Eric was vomiting. The supervisor was advised to contact the nurse. He called the nurse twice between 2:39 a.m. and 3:07 a.m. The calls went unanswered and the report specified that the nurse was no on call.

The supervisor again contacted the superintendent at 3:08 a.m., informing him that he was unable to get in touch with the nurse but that everything with Eric appeared to be okay because he was sleeping.

The grand jury was presented with testimony that the supervisor was overheard saying “he did not want to call 911 because he thought the youth was faking and he did not want to fill out extra paperwork.”

The bigger problem, in the eyes of the officers, appeared to be the smell that accumulated as a result of Eric having lost control of his bowels. The officers made attempts to clean around Eric. Video surveillance showed the officers mopping the area, but failing to check on Eric.

At about 5:15 a.m. one of the officers attempted to help Eric stand so he could take a shower. The teen was unable to stand up and so the officers dragged him by the mattress pad into what is known as a medical confinement cell. Pillows were placed around the teen and he was covered with sheets. Eric could be heard snoring.

No further attempts were made to contact a nurse or the superintendent. 911 had still not been contacted.

The last visible movement from Eric occurred at 7 a.m. His arms, which had been placed at his sides, moved slightly. An examination of the video by the medical examiner revealed that this movement was “decerebrate posturing”, indicating that this was the time when Eric died.

The female officer continued to report checking on Eric every ten minutes; however, evidence was presented to the grand jury that the officer was checking on a youth who had already been deceased for about an hour.

At 7:51 a.m. another officer became concerned because he did not hear Eric snoring anymore. He checked for a pulse and noted that the teen was “cold to the touch.”

At 7:57 a.m. a call was finally made to 911. Eric was pronounced dead shortly upon their arrival at 8:09 a.m.

The Policies

The report describing the presentment to the grand jury indicated that the Palm Beach Regional Juvenile Detention Center had policies and procedures pertaining to contacting 911. Employees are directed to contact 911 if a “potentially life threatening medical emergency arises.” If a youth experiences medical difficulties that are of an unknown severity level the officers are to send the individual to the clinic or call a nurse to conduct a further assessment.

The facility had signs posted prominently throughout stating that staff members maintained the right to call 911 if they believed a situation was potentially life-threatening. However, this did not occur in Eric’s situation.

All incidents are also to be referred to the Central Communications Center (CCC). A review of the detention facilities practices showed that between July 1st of 2011 and July 10th of 2011, 107 reports and/or calls were made to emergency services from the facility. Despite the policy requiring the facility to report these incidents to the CCC, only eight were ultimately reported to the CCC.

Prior to Eric’s death, officers involved in the incident had received training – some within weeks of the event – regarding the policies and procedures regarding handling a youth in custody who appeared sick or injured. Officers are taught during that training that they can contact 911 at their own discretion without receiving approval from a supervisor.

But in Eric’s case, no one did.

Grand Jury Findings

The grand jury found that the staff at the detention center were insufficiently trained when it came to identifying early warning signs of a potentially life threatening situation. They further indicated that the facility needed to provide  an around-the-clock trained medical professional for the purpose of evaluating youth who might be experiencing a life-threatening emergency.

The grand jury also found that officers were engaging in “inappropriate relationships with their youth wards”. This was made in reference to video surveillance that showed “several youths being treated in a rough manner by the DJJ officers.”

The report states:

At one point, many of the youths are seen pointing at Mr. Perez as if he had the prohibited snack in his possession. Two DJJ officers are then seen lifting Mr. Perez, one by Mr. Perez’s head, and one by his feet. Mr. Perez is turned upside down and dropped onto the floor or nearby wall hitting his head and/or should area. Throughout the interaction in the cafeteria, the youths laugh and joke with the DJJ officers and appear to treat the entire interaction like a game. The DJJ officers do nothing to discourage this behavior.

The DJJ has and had policies prohibiting that type of interaction, but they were not followed.

In addition to the above, the grand jury also cited inappropriate reactions to the medical needs of residents on the part of officers. They pointed to the lack of care provided when Eric experienced hallucinations, head pain, and other signs of clear distress.

The officers’ response to Mr. Perez’s hallucinations, instability and cries of pain were to simply observe him as he lay on the floor vomiting and defecating in his underwear. More effort was spent cleaning the floor around the youth than attending to his welfare.

The Autopsy

An autopsy revealed that Eric died from a cerebral hemorrhage. The autopsy did not find that the teen had external trauma that would have caused the bleeding, despite the video showing he injured his head. The medical examiner’s office was unable to determine if Eric’s death could have been prevented.

Specialists, including one in neuropathology, reviewed the video and the medical evidence in an attempt to determine if the hemorrhage was caused by the injury or if medical intervention could have prevented the youth’s death. They were unable to make this determination.

Despite the efforts of four forensic pathologists and one practicing neuropathologist, there is not sufficient evidence establishing the specific cause of the cerebral hemorrhage that resulted in Mr. Perez’s death or whether prompt medical attention could/would have saved his life. Thus, no criminal charges are appropriate. As a result, the manner of death is undetermined.

The grand jury indicated that criminal charges could not be brought against anyone in reference to child neglect because they did not feel that Eric met the criteria of “child” according to the statutes.

Recommendations

The grand jury report contained several recommendations. The first was that the correctional officers at the facility receive extensive training.

The second was that the policies and procedures be modified to contain the requirement that officers must seek an evaluation by a medical professional for youths complaining of a medical condition.

The third recommendation was that the facility needed to have a medical professional on site at all times for the purpose of performing such a medical evaluation. “The officers should be required to call 911 for outside medical assistance.”

Finally, the report recommended that the legislature should “enact a statute addressing the criminal neglect of anyone in the care of custody of the DJJ.”

Aftermath

In mid July two officers working for the facility were fired after having been placed on administrative leave following Eric’s death. Though the facility had not confirmed the reason for their termination, the media drew a correlation between Eric’s death and the dismissing of the officers. The same report indicated that Eric was scheduled for release from the facility within a week.

By the beginning of August, the media had reported that the state was refusing to pay for Eric’s funeral expenses, despite everything that occurred while he was in the custody of the DJJ. One article stated:

Juvenile justice administrators had offered to pay up to $5,000 in funeral costs to bury 18-year-old Eric Perez, who died at the West Palm Beach detention center on July 10. But after the state cut a check to the Tillman Funeral Home, Florida’s chief financial officer ordered that the check be destroyed, records show.

The article also indicated that this would not have the first time a youth’s funeral was covered by the state. The same article stated that five corrections officers were suspended because of the incident, along with Anthony C. Flowers, the facility’s superintendent.

In terms of the recommended changes, only time will tell if they are implemented.

Eric’s death is unsettling for many reasons. The lack of response to the rapid onset of his symptoms is perhaps the most troubling, although I was really disgusted to read that the state issued a check to assist in paying for the funeral, only to put a stop on it.

Eric has not been the only youth in Florida to die within the custody of a detention facility. Omar Paisley died in a Miami-Dade Detention Center in 2003, after spending three days in his cell writhing in pain due to an appendicitis attack.

Speaking Out

If you are equally disturbed by what you have read there are actions you can take toward ensuring the recommendations provided in the grand jury report are put into effect. The first thing you can do is contact the Secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Wansley Walters, and urge her to monitor implementation of the recommendations. Her contact information is available here.

You can also share Eric’s story and ask others to take action as well. Please help to prevent the death of another youth in Florida’s detention facilities. Sending an email costs nothing and it could have a significantly positive impact if our voices are heard and acknowledged.

Another action you can take is to contact legislators within Florida to modify statutes relating to child neglect or abuse to ask that all youth detained within the state’s facilities be included in the description of children who qualify for protection under the law. You may find contact information for Florida House Representatives here.

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