Byron Williams said 'I can't breathe' 17 times as police restrained him. Why did few protest his death?

LAS VEGAS — Jeffery Thompkins stood at a community rally with thousands of protesters this month, listening as they chanted, "I can't breathe."

They were shouting the last words of George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25 with an officer's knee on his neck. Floyd's final moments were captured on video by a bystander.

Thompkins, 32, said he closed his eyes, holding back tears. He had heard the words before, nearly nine months earlier. But the voice he heard back then belonged to Byron Lee Williams, his mother's fiancé.

On Sept. 5, two Las Vegas police officers arrested Williams, 50, who was Black, for riding a bicycle without a safety light. Body camera video released by police showed the officers chasing Williams, holding him on the ground, handcuffed, and kneeling on his back before lifting him upright and dragging him away. Williams repeatedly told officers, "I can't breathe."

He said it at least 17 times before he died, according to the police video.

But unlike Floyd's death — which triggered a wave of protests across the country, including in Las Vegas, and led to charges for the four Minneapolis officers involved — Williams' death drew little attention. Police released just part of the video from one of the body cameras; no bystander videos emerged. A single rally for Williams last fall drew about two dozen people. No charges have been filed against officers connected to the case.

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Williams' family, community activists and civil rights advocates say it is hard to understand why Williams' death did not spark the same outrage or face the same public scrutiny as Floyd's. In part, they believe it is because Las Vegas police controlled the narrative by releasing only some of the bodycam video to the public. Police showed Williams' family additional bodycam video, in which officers ignored his cries for help, his relatives say. (NBC News has not seen the additional video, but two of Williams' relatives and two civil rights advocates who saw it all described it similarly.)

And at the September news conference where police showed the partial video for the first time, officials emphasized Williams' criminal record, including drug and theft convictions.

Officer Aden OcampoGomez, a Las Vegas police spokesman, said that the case was still under investigation and that the department could not comment further.

"The police told the public their version of the story, how they wanted to," Thompkins said. "No one saw what we saw."

A push for transparency

Las Vegas has a reputation for parties, not police brutality protests. But for nearly three weeks following Floyd's death, rallies, demonstrations and candlelight vigils have swept the city, often drawing thousands of people.

While the marches have been in response to Floyd's death, organizers called for local changes, including defunding Las Vegas' police department and ending racial inequities in policing. About 12.2 percent of the Las Vegas Valley's population is Black, but from 2015 to 2019, the share of people shot by Las Vegas police who were Black ranged from 24 percent to 40 percent, according to a statistical analysis published by the department.

Some of the recent protesters called for police accountability in Williams' death, as well as the death of Tashii Farmer, 40, who also went by Tashii Brown, a Black man who died in 2017 after Kenneth Lopera, then a Las Vegas police officer, shocked him with a stun gun seven times and placed him in a neck hold. Lopera faced charges, including involuntary manslaughter, but after a grand jury declined to indict him, Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson dropped the charges.

Lopera, who left the department shortly after his arrest, had been the first Las Vegas police officer in 27 years to face a charge involving an in-custody death. (The reason for his departure from the department has not been disclosed.) No Las Vegas police officer has been charged in an in-custody death since then.

"Before there was George Floyd, there were people who died at the hands of the police department in Las Vegas just in the last few years, and their families have not seen justice," said the Rev. Vance "Stretch" Sanders, a community activist and youth pastor.

Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country

On June 5, amid the recent protests, Las Vegas police announced changes to their use of force policy. The changes, which took effect May 15, include barring officers from restraining suspects in a way that limits their ability to breathe. If suspects say they cannot breathe, they must be placed in a recovery position, such as sitting upright, and officers must call for medical assistance immediately.

That was a change that civil liberties groups say they demanded in several meetings following Williams' death, and it marks the third time the department has significantly updated its use-of-force policies since 2012, when a series of police shootings drew criticism from the U.S. Justice Department.

"We have worked very hard over the past eight years to build trust and have a department that reflects our community," Las Vegas police Deputy Chief John McGrath said in an announcement of the recent updates.

The 2012 reforms included the use of body cameras and the release of more information about in-custody death investigations. In 2017, about four months after Farmer's death, the department restricted the use of a type of chokehold.

Wesley Juhl, the spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said the changes are a step in the right direction but will not have a significant impact unless officers are disciplined or charged when they violate the policies.

Juhl added that the department needs to be more transparent about investigations of deaths in police custody, as well as any disciplinary action taken against officers; that information is now left out of the department's published reviews following deaths. He also said that while Las Vegas police generally release body camera video, often only parts of it are shown.

"It's not transparency if you're using a selected video clip to make your point," Juhl said.

"The point of transparency is for Metro to allow the public to hold them accountable," he continued, referring to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, "but we've seen time and time again that there are still unresolved questions surrounding use of force and in-custody death cases."

'Over a damn bicycle light'

Thompkins said he and his family did not know what to expect when police asked to meet with them three days after Williams' death to view body camera video. Thompkins said all that police had told the family was that Williams had been arrested, had had difficulty breathing and was taken to a hospital, where he died.

As they walked through the double doors of police headquarters, near downtown Las Vegas, less than a mile from where Williams had been stopped, it was still hard for them to believe he was gone.

Known by his friends and family as "Punch," Williams grew up in Southern California, near San Bernardino. He and Thompkins' mother, Carmon Scott, 53, had known each other since high school and eventually began a relationship. They had a child, Thompkins' older sister, and later split up but remained close friends.

Williams was one of the only male figures in Thompkins' childhood. Even when Thompkins' family moved to Illinois and then Las Vegas, they kept in touch by phone, and he considered Williams a stepfather.

Byron Williams, 50, with his daughter, Kelly Williams. (Courtesy of Jeffery Thompkins)
Byron Williams, 50, with his daughter, Kelly Williams. (Courtesy of Jeffery Thompkins)

Four years ago, Williams and Thompkins' mother reconciled, and he moved to Las Vegas to be with her. Thompkins, who runs the JET Foundation, a Las Vegas nonprofit that helps underserved families gain access to everything from food to medical care, began spending more time with Williams.

Thompkins said that while Williams still had his ups and downs — a drug addiction that had contributed to prison stints in California for narcotics and theft convictions, as well as arrests in Las Vegas on drug possession charges — he was trying hard to change.

Williams, a barber, often gave out free haircuts to those who could not pay for them, even when he short on cash, his family said. He doted on his three grandchildren. He enjoyed fishing at Lake Mead and listening to old-school R&B. Williams did not have a car, but he used his bicycle to run errands for elderly neighbors in his central Las Vegas neighborhood, Thompkins said.

That morning at police headquarters, Thompkins said, he, Scott, his sister, Williams' sister and her daughter sat in a small room on the first floor, with two computer screens and a few police officials. He said police explained that two officers had chased Williams on foot and arrested him for riding his bicycle without a safety light shortly after 5:48 a.m. the day he died.

Then an officer began playing the body camera video.

It showed Williams riding his bike, being ordered to pull over and then taking off running. One of the officers caught up to him about a minute and a half later at an apartment complex, where he ordered Williams to get to the ground. Williams lay down on his stomach, and the two officers handcuffed him.

"I can't breathe," Williams said in the video. One officer is shown with his knee pressed into Williams' lower back, while the other presses a hand against Williams' back, holding him to the ground. Again, Williams groaned, "I can't breathe."

"Yeah, because you're f---ing tired of running," one of the officers responded in the video.

About a minute later, a third officer arrived; both he and one of the arresting officers knelt on Williams' lower back for about 30 seconds as Williams repeatedly said he could not breathe.

"You got pressure on your butt, that's all," one of the officers responded in the video.

More officers arrived, and they pulled Williams to his feet. Within seconds, his body appeared to go limp.

"Stand up," one of the officers shouted in the video. "If you don't stand up, we're going to drag you."

The officers then began to drag Williams away.

That scene, which lasts about five minutes, is the part that was later released to the public.

But Williams' family say they were shown more that day.

Thompkins and Scott said the additional video showed officers dragging Williams around a corner, his body still limp, before dropping him on the ground. At one point, Thompkins said, the video showed Williams asking for an ambulance and an officer telling Williams that nobody was coming to help him.

Williams then fell silent, lying on the ground as the officers laughed and discussed weekend plans, Thompkins said.

Scott, Williams' fiancée, echoed Thompkins' description, as did a former ACLU of Nevada staff member and NAACP Las Vegas' chapter president, who both later watched the videos at a meeting with police.

Williams' family sat stunned, watching those scenes repeat as police played video from seven body cameras. From different vantage points, each time, they heard Williams tell officers he could not breathe.

Thompkins said he could barely speak. He watched his sister weep. At one point, overwhelmed with emotion, Scott fell out of her chair, and Thompkins had to grab her, holding her while she cried. One of the four police officials in the room asked whether she needed a glass of water, Thompkins said. It is one of the only times he remembers officers speaking to them while they viewed the video.

The videos ended with paramedics administering CPR as Williams lay motionless next to a patrol car, Thompkins said.

"That's what they told us, that he died at the hospital," Thompkins said. "But when we watched those videos, it looks like he's just dead on the ground right there, that he had already died, and for what? Over a damn bicycle light?"

The police account

The day after the meeting with Williams' family, Las Vegas police held a media briefing about his death. Assistant Sheriff Charles Hank detailed the circumstances that led to Williams' arrest and then spent several minutes describing Williams' criminal record, including the convictions in California, his arrests on drug charges in Nevada and even his "numerous traffic violations."

Hank, who recently retired, said that about a week before Williams' death, he had "absconded" by failing to check in with officers with the county's electronic monitoring program. Earlier in the year, Williams had been required to wear an ankle monitor as he awaited adjudication on June drug charges, according to court records. In response to a reporter's question, Hank said the department had been "in the process" of getting an arrest warrant for Williams before they stopped him for the bicycle light.

Court records did not show Williams as an absconder until Sept. 6, the day after his death. A bench warrant was not issued until the morning of the news conference, according to court records.

Hank added that Williams was carrying drugs on the day he died. When officers stood Williams up after having handcuffed him, two plastic bags of a white substance and an orange bottle filled with white pills dropped to the ground, and Williams appeared to kick them away, Hank said, displaying a picture of the substances. Police later determined that they contained methamphetamine and prescription painkillers.

Hank then rolled the five-minute segment of the body camera video.

Hank spoke over the video at times, pointing out that when officers lifted Williams up, he appeared to be trying to "cover something up."

Hank said officers turned off their the body cameras shortly after moving Williams near the patrol car and did not turn them back on again until paramedics arrived. He said officials were still reviewing the video and whether the cameras were turned off prematurely. He said that Williams appeared to "pass out" as he was taken to the patrol car, but he was "breathing, making noises and moving" as paramedics were called. He identified the two officers who arrested Williams — Benjamin Vasquez, 27, and Patrick Campbell, 28 — but not the several others who arrived later.

When asked by a reporter about the department's policy when suspects tell officers they cannot breathe, Hank said suspects often become winded during chases. He added that the video showed that Williams was trying to conceal drugs.

"Oftentimes, suspects will say things to somewhat distract officers, but it's important — as they did that in this case — is to address that, evaluate that," Hank said.

Paramedics took Williams to Valley Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 6:44 a.m., a little less than an hour after officers tried to pull him over.

A small protest

About a week after the police media briefing, Thompkins and his family held a protest in front of police headquarters organized with the help of Sanders, the community activist.

They asked people who joined the protest to bring bicycles to remember Williams. Angered by the way officials had presented the information about Williams' death, they demanded that the department release video from the seven body cameras they had watched.

Roxann McCoy, president of the NAACP's Las Vegas chapter, said she believes police shape the public's perception of in-custody deaths by the information they emphasize and release — which, in Williams' case, contrasted with what she had seen on the video that was not made public.

"The difference between what I saw on the news and what I viewed later is horrific," McCoy said.

"It's not fair for the police to give the entire rap sheet of someone who died in their custody but then not release the disciplinary history of the officers involved and hide behind union contracts and state codes," she added. "It's painting a picture that there is justification in their actions."

The protest drew 20 to 25 people, including Williams' family.

Image: Jeffery Thompkins (Joe Buglewicz / for NBC News)
Image: Jeffery Thompkins (Joe Buglewicz / for NBC News)

"It hurt that not that many people came. It really did," Thompkins said. "We just wanted people to hear us and know there was more information out there that police weren't giving them."

The next month, the Clark County coroner ruled Williams' death a homicide. The coroner said Williams died of methamphetamine intoxication, medical conditions, including heart and lung disease, and "prone restraint."

On March 3, Wolfson, the Clark County DA, made a preliminary determination not to prosecute the officers involved in Williams' death and recommended the case for a public review. The review, which can include the release of body camera video, but may not show all of it, is intended to give families and the public a chance to ask prosecutors questions about the case. Police said the review in Williams' case has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A report from the police department's force investigation team, which determines whether officers acted criminally during in-custody deaths, is also pending, as is a report by the department's Office of Internal Oversight. Police said the two officers who arrested Williams, who were initially placed on paid administrative leave, per department protocol, are back on active duty.

A hope for change

Thompkins was conflicted over whether to attend the protests that erupted in the wake of Floyd's death. They dredged up many painful memories.

He believed in the outrage people felt now. He had felt it for a long time.

IMAGE: Protest in downtown Las Vegas (Bridget Bennett / AFP via Getty Images file)
IMAGE: Protest in downtown Las Vegas (Bridget Bennett / AFP via Getty Images file)

But watching the recent protests also left him with difficult questions: What would have happened if the public had expressed the same outrage over his stepfather's death? Would people have been angrier if they had seen the video his family saw? If that video had been released, could it have driven protests and changes that saved lives, including George Floyd's?

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On June 5, Thompkins attended a Black Lives Matter rally at Kianga Isoke Palacio Park in west Las Vegas, a historic Black neighborhood. The event, which was organized by Sanders, included a candlelight vigil for Floyd and other Black people who had been killed by police.

As Thompkins stood at the demonstration, he was struck by the large, diverse crowd. He felt proud and sad.

He stayed for only about 20 minutes. It was too overwhelming.

A couple of days later, a woman who said she was a student at a community college contacted Thompkins. She had heard about Williams' case, and she wanted to organize a protest demanding that police do more to investigate his death. It is set for Friday outside police headquarters, and Thompkins plans to attend.

He hopes people will still be watching.