Suit Seeks $10 Million For ‘Senseless, Avoidable Death’ Of Tennessee Man In Custody
Sterling Higgins called 911 in March 2019 seeking help during a mental health crisis. Police took him to Obion County Jail, where he died after officers pinned him to a floor.
On the night of March 24, 2019, 37-year-old Sterling Higgins was agitated as he wandered around Pocket’s Market, a convenience store in Union City, Tennessee. Higgins, who is Black, thought someone was following him and trying to kill him. He called 911 from the store.
Three officers showed up at the scene. Higgins insisted he was being followed and that someone was trying to steal money from his debit cards, which he had in his hand. Sgt. Talmaledge Simmons observed that he was having mental health problems and suggested he go to the hospital, but the three officers didn’t take him before they left.
Still agitated, Higgins went back into Pocket’s Market and hid in a storage locker in the back. A store employee called 911. The three officers returned. Instead of taking him to a hospital for a mental evaluation, they opted to arrest Higgins and bring him to the Obion County Jail, which did not have medical professionals on site. Thirty minutes later, after being restrained by both police and corrections officers, he was dead.
Lawyers representing Higgins’s estate filed a civil rights lawsuit today, alleging that Obion County, Union City, a Union City police officer and three jail officers caused his death by violating his rights under the Fourth and 14th Amendments, the ADA Amendments Act, and Tennessee law.
Erik Heipt, a civil right’s attorney representing the estate, said Higgins’s death was an example of “cruel and inhumane treatment [that] should never happen in an American jail.”
“Sterling Higgins should’ve never been arrested,” Heipt said in an email to The Appeal. “He was in crisis and needed help. He was the one who placed the first 911 call. Instead of taking him to jail, they should have had him evaluated by medical or mental health professionals. This is one of the problems with the police responding to mental health calls.”
The suit seeks monetary damages up to $10 million for Higgins’s “mental and physical pain and suffering and the loss of the value of his life.”
Shortly after arriving at the jail around 1:43 a.m. Higgins, hands cuffed behind his back, encountered jail officer Mary Broglin as he was being led into a holding area. After saying he thought she was trying to harm him, there was a brief scuffle in which he momentarily grabbed her hair, but she pulled free and did not suffer physical injury.
Surveillance footage obtained by The Appeal then shows jail officer Waylon Spaulding throwing Higgins to the floor, grabbing him by the face and throat, and crouching on top of him. When Higgins begins kicking his legs, another corrections officer retrieves a set of leg shackles as Spaulding continues to grasp his neck and head. Arresting officer Robert Thomas Osborne appears to then step on Higgins, leaning against a wall to maintain balance while putting his weight on Higgins’s body.
Eventually, Higgins appears to go limp. After a short time, Osborne appears to step off Higgins—who by then was foaming at the mouth—even as Spaulding appears to continue pressing his neck and head. Shortly afterward, corrections officers put him in a restraint chair and wheel him into Cell 15.
By that point, Higgins had completely stopped moving. Over the next five to six minutes, jail staff searched several times for his pulse, having a seemingly difficult time finding one. Around 2:12 a.m. Simmons, the Union City Police Department sergeant, came in to inspect the situation, joining Osborne who had been going in and out of Cell 15. They removed his restraints and called EMTs, who rushed to the scene. They promptly began administering CPR, but it was too late to revive Higgins.
In addition to the municipalities, the suit names Osborne and jail officers Broglin, Spaulding, and Brendon Sanford as defendants in the case.
Higgins’s death sparked an outcry among local activists in Union City, who demanded answers about the cause of his death. They pointed to longstanding tensions between Union City’s Black community and police.
“We’re from a small town. It’s a good old boys system. Racism. When it happened, we knew something wasn’t right,” Joshua Freeman, an activist, told The Appeal this week. Freeman and other activists submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for police camera footage. What came back showed that Higgins had complied with officer demands following the 911 calls, he says.
Freeman said Osborne should have found a better way to handle a paranoid man hiding in a locker and should have informed Spaulding that they were dealing with a compliant person experiencing mental distress.
“Spaulding, he doesn’t know they’re dealing with him, that he’s not a problem,” Freeman said.
More than two months after Higgins’s death, District Attorney Tommy Thomas said he wanted to wait for toxicology reports before deciding whether to prosecute the police officers involved in the incident. “It’s always a tragic event when someone dies, and here, in police custody. It’s an issue that we’re concerned with and we’re awaiting results from toxicology and autopsy,” Thomas said at the time. He added that he had not seen the surveillance footage.
That fall, a grand jury was convened. It was not shown any of the footage. On Oct. 1, the jury declined to indict any of the officers involved in the incident.
Echoing the autopsy, Thomas contended that Higgins died from “excited delirium” and methamphetamine use and that none of the officers’ behavior rose to the level of criminal conduct. Excited delirium is described as a condition in which a person having a mental and physical breakdown just drops dead. Police manuals across the country characterize the syndrome as dangerous enough that it requires prompt medical attention.
Keeping the video from jurors most likely left them no choice but to accept excited delirium as an explanation, despite the shakiness of the concept, Heipt said. “You wouldn’t get an indictment if you didn’t show the jury the George Floyd video,” he said, referring to Floyd’s death last month in Minneapolis, which triggered nationwide protests.
None of the officers involved in Higgins’s death were disciplined.
“Sterling Higgins was [a] good man who deserved fair and humane treatment,” Jennifer Jenkins, the mother of one of Higgins’s two young daughters, told The Appeal. Jenkins is named as the plaintiff in the new lawsuit and is the administrator of Higgins’s estate.
“He left behind two young children, who will now grow up without a father,” Jenkins said. “He was treated as if his life didn’t matter. We want the truth to be known. We want accountability. We want justice for Sterling Higgins.”
Heipt said what happened to Higgins “was outrageous.”
“This sort of cruel and inhumane treatment should never happen in an American jail,” Heipt said. “It was deplorable and unconstitutional. Whether it was a result of poor training or a lack of humanity, it should’ve never happened. It was a senseless, avoidable death.”