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Tennessee Officers’ Conduct Probed In Woman’s Death

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Four Tennessee police officers are being investigated for their treatment of a woman whose pleas for help they repeatedly ignored as they accused her of faking illness after she was discharged from a hospital. The woman was pronounced dead a day later.

The Knox County District Attorney’s office announced on Monday that it would not press criminal charges after an autopsy determined that 60-year-old Lisa Edwards died of a stroke and that “at no time did law enforcement interaction cause or contribute to Ms. Edwards’ death.”

That has not stopped public outrage after the Knoxville Police Department released video showing officers accusing Edwards of faking mobility and breathing problems and ignoring her repeated pleas for help.

In the video released last week, officers struggle for about 25 minutes to move Edwards into a police van and finally a cruiser after being called by Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center on Feb. 5.

Edwards repeatedly asks for help but is rebuffed by officers and hospital security guards who become frustrated with her inability to step up into the van and tell her she is faking her incapacity.

Edwards tells them she can’t breathe, she needs help sitting up, and that she’s going to have a stroke. At one point, she tells them, “I’m gonna die.”

First to arrive at the hospital is Sgt. Brandon Wardlaw. It is 8 a.m. and Edwards is in a hospital wheelchair in the corner of a parking garage. Security guards tell Wardlaw that she has been discharged from the medical center but won’t leave the property and that they need the wheelchair back. Edwards appears somewhat disoriented, asking the officer, “Can you call the preacher for me?”

When he can’t get Edwards to leave, Wardlaw decides to arrest her for trespassing and calls for a police van, but officers cannot get her inside it. They try several times to lift her but end up leaving her propped half-in, half-out of the van. Eventually she slumps to the ground, where they leave her lying for several minutes.

This image provided by the Knoxville Police Department shows police video footage from the Feb. 5, 2023, arrest of Lisa Edwards, who later died at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center in Knoxville, Tenn.
This image provided by the Knoxville Police Department shows police video footage from the Feb. 5, 2023, arrest of Lisa Edwards, who later died at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center in Knoxville, Tenn.

Knoxville Police Department via AP

Throughout her interaction with police, Edwards repeatedly tells the officers that she can’t breathe and needs help sitting up. Her breathing is heavy and her words are slurred.

When a man walks into the parking garage, Edwards calls out to him, ”Doctor! Doctor!”

She asks for her inhaler over and over again, but officers cannot locate it for several minutes. When they finally find it and give it to her, Wardlaw decides she isn’t using it correctly and takes it away again.

Wardlaw, Officer Adam Barnett, and others repeatedly express their belief that Edwards is faking her mobility and breathing problems.

“You’ve been medically cleared ma’am. This is not going to work,” Barnett tells her at one point. Later he complains that she is not using her legs “on purpose.”

“Now you’re starting to piss me off! Get up!” he tells Edwards.

“This is all an act,” Wardlaw says. “When you get out to jail, you’d better not pull this stunt, ’cause they don’t play around out there.”

There is an indication in the video that officers may be aware Edwards could be in real distress. When they suggest putting her in the back of the van, the driver balks.

“She’s saying she can’t breathe. If she falls … and dies, it’s on me,” says Transportation Officer Danny Dugan, who is not a sworn police officer.

Eventually they call Officer Timothy Distasio, deciding that his cruiser has a lower profile that will make it easier to get her inside. The officers push her in, and leave her lying on her back. At this point she is wheezing heavily. She asks repeatedly for officers to sit her up but they tell her she can sit herself up.

Video from inside the police car shows Edwards trying to pull herself upright repeatedly, but eventually she slumps out of sight. Several minutes later Distasio performs a traffic stop on another vehicle. When he opens the rear door, Edwards is unresponsive. He calls dispatch for an ambulance, telling them, “I don’t know if she’s faking it or what, but she’s not answering me.”

Edwards was pronounced dead at the Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center the following day.

Wardlaw, Barnett, Distasio and Dugan are on paid administrative leave, pending the outcome of the internal investigation into their conduct, according to Knoxville Police spokesman Scott Erland.

“A lot of us see these terrible videos, and then there are no repercussions for the officers because we are told that it looks terrible but actually is technically lawful and according to policy,” said Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who studies policing. “They never ask the bigger question of why were the police involved in the first place? …. Why are we using police to cover up the failures of our basic health care system?”

Edwards had flown to Tennessee from Rhode Island on Feb. 4, according to the autopsy report. On the flight, she started experiencing abdominal pain, and was taken to the Blount Memorial Hospital at about 7:45 p.m. There she was disruptive and uncooperative. Her behavior included throwing feces at a nurse.

She was discharged in stable condition, but she showed up at the Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center at about 1 a.m. on February 5. She was was discharged about six hours later, according to the autopsy.

Edwards’ daughter-in-law, August Boylan, told television station WATE-TV that Edwards had mobility problems stemming from a stroke in 2019. She also had multiple medical issues, according to the autopsy, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Boylan said that her mother-in-law had moved to Rhode Island from Tennessee in 2018, but decided to move back.

“She was able to make her own decision as far as you know wanting to move back to Tennessee. She had a plan in place. She was discharged from a nursing home that had her helped arrange her flight to fly back to Tennessee. She was going to be living with a friend in Tennessee,” Boylan told the station.