OBION COUNTY, TN — A 37-year-old man died not long after he entered a northwest Tennessee jail, and a grand jury declined to indict any jailers or law enforcement officers in the case.
In March, Sterling Higgins died about an hour after he was detained in the Obion County Law Enforcement Complex.
Local 6 has obtained videos related to the case, neither of which the grand jury saw before making their decision. The first shows Higgins' arrest at a convenience store. The second shows the events before his death in the jail.
Obion County's district attorney general gave Local 6 around two hours of video related to the case.
It starts with body camera footage showing Union City police officers responding to a 911 call Higgins made outside a convenience store. In the video, he tells officers "someone stole his tax return money," "someone was following him," and "that people wanted to kill him." You can hear officers say multiple times "something's up" with him. They eventually calm him down, let him leave and tell him not to come back to the store.
A police report shows a few minutes later officers came back to arrest Higgins on a charge of criminal trespassing. About an hour later, Higgins died.
At 1:44 a.m., Higgins arrives at the jail. There is no audio in the video at the jail. The police report said after Union City Police Officer Orsborne told Higgins to get out of patrol car, Higgins yelled, "They are going to get us."
At 1:46 a.m, Higgins makes it inside the jail with the help of Orsborne. A female jailer, Mary Broglin, meets them. The police report said Higgins yelled "There she is. She is going to get us."
Then he is seen touching Broglin, and a few seconds later you can see her bent down. The police report says, "somehow while still cuffed behind his back, Higgins grabbed a handful of her hair, and would not let go."
A separate jailer, Waylon Spaulding, attempts to take Higgins down to control him. It is still 1:46 a.m.
Orsborne leaves to take Higgins property to a desk, then comes back with gloves to assist.
Another jailer, Brendon Sanford, intervenes in trying to control Higgins with the other two jailers.
The police report said Orsborne used a "knee strike" to help the jailers as Higgins continued to "struggle, kick, and be combative."
At 1:49 a.m., you can see Higgins stop moving after leg irons were secured onto him. Officers then carry Higgins to a restraint chair where they check his pulse, then take him to a cell.
It is 2:01 a.m. when Higgins is finally in a cell secured in the restraint chair.
A separate camera inside that cell shows three jailers and two officers continually checking Higgins' pulse for a total of 13 separate times in a time span of 14 minutes before EMS respond.
The police report said, "It appeared he was not breathing and no pulse found."
It adds,"Due to Higgins bizarre behavior, drug use was suspected, so Jailer Spaulding used Narcan."
It said Officer Orsborne had dispatch contact ambulance service and he called a superior, Obion County Police Department's Sergeant Simmons.
At 2:14 a.m., fire and ambulance personnel go inside the jail and reach Higgins cell.
At 2:15 a.m., Higgins is out of the chair restraints, and first responders are seen giving him chest compression until 2:12 a.m.
The report of investigation by the county medical examiner said Higgins arrived at the Baptist Memorial Hospital in Union City at 2:40 a.m. It said hospital staff continued life-saving efforts with no response, and he was pronounced dead at 2:52 a.m.
I spoke with Obion County District Attorney General Tommy Thomas about his decision to not show grand jurors the videos.
"I don't think the video, in my opinion, does not show any negligent conduct on behalf of the officers. I felt that the case could be adequately presented through the testimony of the TBI agent," Thomas said.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation determined those involved were not guilty of any criminal activity.
Thomas said if they were going to charge any officers or jailers it would be with criminally negligent homicide, but this case doesn't meet that standard.
"You'd have to prove the jailers or the officers should have known their conduct in restraining the prisoner could have killed him," Thomas said. "And that their failure to perceive the risk and change the conduct was a gross deviation of conduct for the ordinary care a regular person would use."
He also said it would have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that conduct was the cause of his death.
The autopsy report shows Higgins died from excited delirium due to a methamphetamine overdose, which doctors say can cause violence and hallucinations.
"The excitement of the evening there in the jail when he attacked the officer, and then he was restrained, that excitement coupled with methamphetamine toxicity caused his death." Thomas said.
In its summary, the West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center's autopsy report added, "Reports of the death scene investigation, circumstances surrounding and leading up to the death, and autopsy findings indicate the manner of death to be an accident."
The autopsy showed he had a high level of methamphetamine, 620 mL, in his blood.
We reached out to the co-chair of Crisis Intervention Team International. It's a group that trains officers to better interact with people suffering from mental illnesses and going through substance abuse. Co-chair Sam Cochran chose not to view the video to give us an unbiased opinion on the topic.
He has 34 years of experience as a retired officer of the Memphis Police Department in Tennessee. He said officers are often juggling how to do their jobs to protect public safety and deal with drugs and mental illnesses.
"Rather than seeing the officers as someone there to assist them, they may be seeing the officer as a threat to them, and that's very, very challenging," Cochran said. "Officers have to work through those challenges and keep in mind that safety continues to be at the paramount."
Thomas said about 90% of the cases he prosecutes lead back to drugs in some way.
Cochran said mental health and drug abuse are often linked, and resources available in a community to both groups make a difference for law enforcement.
"Many times you have local mental health services that are available Monday through Friday, 8 to 5 p.m., but the law enforcement crisis world also engages other hours of that 24 hour period of time," Cochran said.
I reached out to the Union City Police Department's chief of police multiple times for comment on this story and the video. I left messages asking specifically about their departments de-escalation training and how they deal with people suffering from drug abuse and mental illnesses. I received no response.
This was not Higgins first time interacting with the Union City Police Department. I requested all reports from the agency where officers responded to crimes involving Higgins. They came back with six reports, including the most recent arrest, and only one was for a drug charge. A 2013 report shows he was issued a misdemeanor citation for a baggy of marijuana weighing 2. 8 grams.
Cochran said communities have to find a way to work together to divert people with substance abuse problems away from jails.
"I think it's imperative that leaders of communities and the citizens of communities say what are we doing, how are we doing things, are the systems actually working or are we utilizing the county jails as a local mental health system?" Cochran said.
Thomas said he wants the community to move forward and find ways to address the substance abuse problem they have.
"The system works. We've been very open with the family and the community organizers and the community at large about what happened here," Thomas said.
He reiterated his offer of releasing documents to the family if they choose to pursue charges against the Obion County Jail, The Obion County Sheriff's Department, Union City or the Union City Police Department.
"I'm satisfied," he said. "I'm comfortable with the decision here not to pursue any criminal charges against the officers."
We also reached out the Obion County Jail and Obion County Sheriff's Office multiple times for comment on this story and the video, with no response.