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Death of man who told police ‘I can’t breathe’ led to discipline

Updated August 18, 2021 - 10:20 am

Disciplinary action followed the in-custody death of an unarmed Black man who repeatedly told Las Vegas police “I can’t breathe,” the Review-Journal has learned.

State law deems police disciplinary records confidential, but Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo told the newspaper during a Tuesday interview that “there was some discipline associated with” the 2019 death of Byron Williams, 50.

Citing pending litigation in the case, the sheriff refused to release further information, including how many officers were disciplined or what level of discipline they faced. Discipline within the Metropolitan Police Department can include a written reprimand, transfer, suspension, demotion or termination. In some cases, officers are allowed to resign in lieu of being fired.

“I’m going to be deposed on this,” Lombardo said, “and it’s not appropriate for me to discuss it.”

A federal civil rights lawsuit was filed last month in Las Vegas on behalf of the Williams family against the sheriff and the Police Department, the city of Las Vegas, Clark County, and officers Patrick Campbell, Benjamin Vasquez, Alexander Gonzalez and Rocky Roman.

Defense attorneys representing the Williams family said on Tuesday that they did not have adequate information about the disciplinary action to comment for this story.

Just before dawn on Sept. 5, 2019, Campbell and Vasquez stopped Williams for riding his bicycle without a safety light. As the officers chased Williams, they declared a “code red” emergency on Metro’s radio channels, drawing a sizable police response to the area of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Bonanza Road, which is located in the heart of the city’s Black community.

Once in custody, Williams was handcuffed facedown on the ground in a prone position while pinned under the knee of an officer.

He told police “I can’t breathe” at least 24 times, according to the lawsuit and police body camera videos of the encounter.

The officers mocked him, the videos showed. Two of them high-fived.

Williams was dead within the hour.

The case, though it spurred a number of changes at Metro, did not lead to any arrests. According to a Metro spokesman, all four officers named in the lawsuit were on “active duty” as of Tuesday.

Asked on Tuesday whether he stood by the actions of all the officers connected to Williams’ death, Lombardo shifted focus to his department’s new and updated policies.

“I stand by the changes,” he told the Review-Journal.

Those changes include a new training course on ethics and professionalism that teaches officers to “respect the value of every human life.”

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writers Katelyn Newberg and Sabrina Schnur contributed to this report.

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