Knoxville police officers disciplined after chief sharply criticizes their arrest of Lisa Edwards

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Three of the four Knoxville police officers involved in the arrest of 60-year-old Lisa Edwards, who collapsed in police custody and later died, have been disciplined.

  • Sgt. Brandon Wardlaw, the first to arrive at the hospital, was demoted to officer.

  • Officer Timothy Distasio, who was driving Edwards to jail when she lost consciousness, was suspended without pay for 10 days.

  • Officer Adam Barnett was suspended without pay for four days.

Transportation officer Danny Dugan did not violate any departmental policies, according to a Knoxville Police Department report.

After the arrest, all four were placed on paid suspension. None will lose their jobs.

Edwards was arrested Feb. 5 outside Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center just after she was discharged. Police videos show she begged for medical help, was left on a sidewalk and later slumped over in the back of a squad car while the officer stopped to help a driver who was pulled over on the side of the road.

The Knoxville Police Department's internal affairs investigation report was released a little more than three months after Edwards' death, which drew widespread outrage over the way police treated her.

What does the Internal Affairs report say?

The nearly 900-page report examined the actions of the police officers who responded that morning. It found Edwards told police many times about her medical concerns but officers inadequately addressed or outright ignored them.

Wardlaw, the report said, never changed his decision to take Edwards to jail and failed to look into why her statements differed from those of the hospital security guards. None of the officers made any attempt to get a medical opinion on Edwards' health.

The "words, actions and inactions" of Wardlaw, Distasio and Barnett showed "an utter disregard for the respect of human life," the report concluded. "Ms. Edwards was entrusted to the custody, care and control of the KPD ... and, once seized, her life literally rested in their hands."

  • Distasio committed seven violations: unbecoming conduct, neglect of duty, unsatisfactory performance, treatment of prisoners, courtesy, prisoner transportation (seat belt), unconscious persons

  • Wardlaw committed six violations of department policy: unbecoming conduct, neglect of duty, unsatisfactory performance, treatment of prisoners, courtesy and prisoner transportation (seat belt)

  • Barnett committed four violations: unbecoming conduct, unsatisfactory performance, treatment of prisoners and courtesy

Knoxville Police Chief Paul Noel, who said he was "disturbed and embarrassed" when he watched the videos, explained why the disciplinary actions were taken and why the supervisor received the harshest penalty.

"Our response and subsequent actions followed a larger systemic failure," Noel said. "Ms. Edwards was at minimum failed by the hospital system and hospital security before we even arrived. We did not help that situation by the way our officers chose to treat Ms. Edwards."

Noel stressed his officers' actions did not contribute to Ms. Edwards’ death, pointing to the autopsy report.

But, he added, "The way we spoke to and treated Ms. Edwards was completely unacceptable, and exposed that we have a problem as an organization with how we talk to people. This situation also represented a failure of supervision. Supervisors are held to a higher standard and are there to ensure that the employees under their command are making decisions in the best interest of those we serve and the department.”

What led to Lisa Edwards' death

Edwards had been a longtime resident of Knoxville, but in 2018 she moved to Rhode Island to be closer to her sons and grandchildren.

Edwards initially lived with family but had a stroke in August 2019 and moved into a nursing home. Eventually, Edwards decided to move back to Knoxville, where she was going to live with a friend.

Soon after Edwards arrived at the Knoxville airport on Feb. 4, she was taken to Blount Memorial Hospital for abdominal pain. She was discharged but went to Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center, where she was evaluated and discharged the next morning.

Edwards was arrested after hospital security staff called police to tell them she refused to leave. Body cam footage showed the first KPD officer arrived just before 8 a.m., about an hour after Edwards was discharged. Edwards told the officer she had a stroke and couldn’t walk, but his response was that the hospital wanted her gone and he was taking her to jail.

A jail van was called and officers and the driver physically struggled for 30 minutes to get Edwards into the side compartment, leaving her slumped on the sidewalk.

Edwards repeatedly said she couldn't breathe or stand, but officers and security staff told her she was fine. The police eventually decided to take her in a regular police cruiser. Officers struggled to place her in the back seat and never succeeded in getting her into a fully upright position.

At the beginning of the drive, Edwards was gasping and wheezing before she slumped back. Within 10 minutes, she slipped out of sight and could not be heard on the cruiser camera. The officer drove another 3 minutes before he stopped to help another driver. When he returned to the vehicle, he found Edwards unconscious.

What happened after Edwards' death?

The Knox County District Attorney's Office said Edwards died of a stroke and that none of the officers who handled her arrest would face criminal charges. The office cited a medical examiner's report that said “at no time did law enforcement interaction cause or contribute to Ms. Edwards’ death.”

The hospital in April released a statement that found the medical treatment and hospital discharge were "clinically appropriate."

The hospital also conducted an in-depth review of its security procedures and policies and evaluated its security services contract, the release said.

"Several officers involved are no longer working at any Covenant Health facility," the release said. "In addition, we are implementing empathy training for security officers serving on behalf of Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center and Covenant Health."

People posted hundreds of critical Facebook comments about the officers' conduct, and many community members gathered Feb. 27 to hold a vigil in her honor.

Edwards' family hired Devon Jacob, a high-profile civil rights attorney who is an expert in lawsuits over in-custody deaths. Jacob did not answer an emailed request for comments on the report.

Liz Kellar is a public safety reporter. Email Twitter @LizKellar.

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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Knoxville police officers disciplined after arrest of Lisa Edwards