Eleven Harris County Sheriff's Office employees were fired and another six suspended without pay after an internal investigation into the death of a man detained in the Harris County Jail during February's winter storm, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez announced Friday.
The Houston Police Department is now conducting a criminal investigation into what occurred.
At a press conference Friday, Gonzalez said detention officers used excessive force during an incident with 23-year-old Jaquaree Simmons, while others did not intervene as the excessive force was occurring back on Feb. 16.
"These 11 people betrayed my trust and the trust of our community,” Gonzalez said. “They abused their authority. Their conduct towards Mr. Simmons was reprehensible, they showed complete disregard for the safety and well being of a person they were directly responsible for protecting.”
Investigators at the Sheriff’s office say Simmons had been in a COVID-19 quarantined cell after being booked on a felony murder charge by the Houston Police Department on Feb. 10.
Six days later, investigators say Simmons clogged his toilet with clothing, causing it to overflow and flood his cell. After briefly removing Simmons to clean the cell, investigators say they returned him, without clothes — a policy violation in itself, officials said.
"When removing an inmates clothes, you're supposed to advise a supervisor, you're supposed to increase the rate in which you conduct visual checks, and you're supposed to provide a suicide smock,” said Major Thomas Diaz of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. “None of those occurred.”
Upon delivering food to Simmons' cell, an altercation took place which resulted in a "closed strike" to Simmons, who then fell to the floor, Diaz said. Detention officers then called for help to remove Simmons from his cell, so he could be evaluated by medical personnel.
"At this time, we believe Mr. Simmons suffered multiple blows to his head,” Diaz said. “None of the employees present for the second use of force documented it at the time, which is an additional policy violation."
Diaz said proper medical care was not actually given to Simmons because no x-rays were taken at the advice of medical professionals. Power was out at the time of the incident, due to the storm, the x-ray would have needed to occur swiftly. Staff never managed took Simmons back to the clinic even after power was restored and the clinic requested his return, Diaz sadded.
Simmons was found unresponsive at noon on Feb. 17.
"I understand that these disciplinary actions in no way make up for what happened to Jaquaree Simmons inside our jail,” 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.”