HOUSTON - 11 employees were terminated and six others were suspended after they were found to have committed serious policy violations in connection with the death of a 23-year-old man inside the Harris County Jail, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez announced Friday.
The sheriff’s office says a dozen Internal Affairs investigators and supervisors conducted the three-month inquiry into the death of Jaquaree Simmons on February 17, during the winter freeze.
"The family is most interested in the criminal accountability," said attorney Lee Merritt. "They believe that all though this administrative process is a start the criminal accountability puts them on the road to closure and healing."
"The jail system the justice system needs to change," added Simmons' mother Larhonda Biggles. "There’s still people there and they’re human and I don’t want no one else to ever have to go through what I’m going through."
The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences ruled that Simmons died from blunt force trauma to the head with subdural hematoma – a homicide, according to the sheriff’s office.
11 terminated, 6 suspended
The results of the Sheriff’s Office Internal Affairs Investigation were presented to the Sheriff’s Administrative Disciplinary Committee, which made disciplinary recommendations to the sheriff.
According to the sheriff’s office, the following employees have been notified of their termination in connection with this investigation: Detention Officer Garland Barrett, Detention Officer Patricia Brummett, Detention Officer Joshua Dixon, Detention Officer Alysheia Mallety, Detention Officer Israel Martinez, Detention Officer Eric Morales, Detention Sgt. Jacob Ramirez, Detention Officer Alfredo Rodriguez, Detention Officer Daniel Rodriguez, Deputy Dana Walker, and Detention Officer Chadwick Westmoreland.
"During a natural disaster, we expect to see the very best in our employees. These 11 people betrayed my trust and the trust of our community," Sheriff Gonzalez said. "They abused their authority. Their conduct toward Mr. Simmons was reprehensible. They showed complete disregard for the safety and well-being of a person they were directly responsible for protecting. They escalated, rather than de-escalated, the situation. Their conduct was unacceptable and inexcusable, and has discredited them, the Sheriff’s Office, and their fellow employees. None of them deserve to wear the Harris County Sheriff’s Office patch ever again."
According to the sheriff’s office, six other employees were suspended without pay.
"All six of them are on notice that unless they exhibit immediate and consistent compliance with – and adherence to – all Sheriff’s Office policies, rules and regulations, they will be subjected to the imposition of further disciplinary action, up to and including termination," Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said.
The following employees were notified that they are subject to disciplinary action:
• Detention Officer Antonio Barrera has been notified that he is suspended 10 days and will serve 180 days probation.
• Sgt. Benny Galindez has been notified that he is suspended 3 days and will serve 90 days probation.
• Detention Officer Jeremy McFarland has been notified that he is suspended 5 days and will serve 180 days probation.
• Detention Officer Alexandra Saucier has been notified that she is suspended 3 days and will serve 90 days probation.
• Detention Officer Ralph Tamayo has been notified that he is suspended 5 days and will serve 180 days probation.
• Detention Sgt. Rene Villaloboz has been notified that he is being suspended for 3 days and is on probation for 90 days.
Officials say the employees have a right to appeal these disciplinary actions to the independent Civil Service Commission.
"I understand that these disciplinary actions in no way make up for what happened to Jaquaree Simmons inside our jail," Sheriff Gonzalez said. "But I owe it to him, to his mother, and to our community to do everything in my power to ensure those who had a hand in it are held accountable, and that this sort of thing never happens again."
As required by state law, the Houston Police Department is conducting a separate, independent criminal investigation into Simmons’ death. Officials say the results of that ongoing investigation will be presented to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to determine whether criminal charges are appropriate.
Findings of the investigation
Officials say during the investigation, investigators conducted 73 interviews of 37 employees and 20 jail detainees, reviewed hours of phone records and security video footage, and gathered and analyzed evidence such as round sheets and medical records.
According to the sheriff's office, the events preceding Simmons’ death occurred out of view of the 1,490 security cameras currently operating inside the 1.4-million-square-foot jail complex. The sheriff's office says an ongoing camera installation project that began in 2017 will eventually bring the total number of cameras inside the jail to over 2,000.
According to the Sheriff's Office Internal Affairs investigation, Simmons was booked into the jail on February 10 on a charge of felon in possession of a firearm. He was evaluated by medical staff, found to have no significant health issues, and was assigned into a single cell of the seventh floor to remain in standard COVID-19 quarantine for 10 days, officials say.
On the morning of February 16, investigators say, detention officers responded to Simmons's cell to clean it after he used his clothing to clog his cell toilet, causing it to overflow. The sheriff's office says two policy violations occurred: force was used against Simmons but no employees documented that; and Simmons was returned to his cell with no clothing, which violated a policy that requires detention officers to notify a supervisor before removing a person’s clothing and that the person be provided with a smock.
On the evening of February 16, detention officers arrived at Simmons’ cell to deliver a meal. The sheriff's office says one of the detention officers filed a written report stating that Simmons threw his meal tray at him and charged toward the detention officer, who struck Simmons in the face with his fist and then closed the door leaving Simmons inside the cell.
Detention officers reportedly then called for help removing Simmons from his cell so that he could be evaluated by medical personnel. According to the investigation, detention officers used force against Simmons as they handcuffed him and escorted him out of the cell block, and he suffered multiple blows to his head. The sheriff's office says policy was again violated because none of the employees present for the use of force documented it at the time. Officials say policies regarding appropriate use of force were also violated, along with a policy that requires staff to intervene when they see excessive force being used.
According to the investigation, medical staff evaluated Simmons in the clinic that night, and reported that he was conscious and had a cut to his left eyebrow and upper lip. The power was reportedly out inside the building because of the winter storm, so the medical staff ordered that an X-ray be taken as soon as possible and prescribed Simmons pain medication. Investigators say Simmons was returned to his cell for the night but staff never took Simmons back to the clinic for the x-rays even after power was restored.
According to Sheriff’s Office policy and Texas Commission on Jail Standards requirements, detention officers must conduct visual checks on everyone in the jail every 60 minutes. The sheriff's office says this is usually documented electronically, but the power outage forced all staff to use hand-written round sheets. Investigators determined that this process was not followed in the cell pod where Simmons was housed. Instead, investigators found no documentation of rounds being completed in this area from the morning of February 15 until noon of February 17. Simmons was reportedly found unresponsive in his cell at 12:10 p.m. February 17 when his lunch was delivered. Officials say the failure to conduct rounds was a violation of policy.
After Simmons was found unresponsive, an ambulance was called, and a detention officer reportedly performed chest compressions until they arrived. Simmons was taken to LBJ Hospital, where doctors pronounced him deceased at 1:27 p.m.
According to the sheriff's office, the 17 people who were fired or suspended as a result of their involvement in Simmons’ death committed various serious policy violations. While the specific policy violations varied from one employee to the next, the sheriff's office says they include use of excessive force, failure to document use of force, failure to intervene, and making false statements to investigators. Officials say some also violated procedures related to proper monitoring of the physical welfare of people in the jail.