Sheriff's office satisfied with results of investigation into detainee's death

The Platte County Sheriff’s Office reviewed policies and procedures but didn’t believe any changes were necessary for the department following the death of Emma Lewis while in custody this past summer.

Platte County sheriff Mark Owen called the incident tragic and unfortunate but stood behind the actions of deputies. In late October, Buchanan County prosecutor Dwight Scroggins, assigned as special prosecutor in the matter, informed the department no criminal charges would be filed in Lewis’ death.

The Clay County Sheriff’s Office conducted the investigation.

“At the time, I had no reason to believe we’d done anything wrong but to be open and honest and transparent, I called another entity to investigate,” Owen said. “We were going to be sure it would go to a special prosecutor for review, just totally independent to see if we were right or wrong. If we were wrong, we were wrong, but we needed the facts.”

Lewis, 50, went into custody on the afternoon of June 9 when she refused to comply with a court order of protection her daughter filed against her, according to court documents. Her behavior became erratic during the arrest process, leading deputies to ask for a transport van.

A review of camera footage from the back of that van during the ride confirmed the trip from Lewis’ home to the Platte County Government Complex lasted about 5 minutes. Deputies can be seen in a reflection opening the back of the van before starting life-saving procedures on Lewis, who was declared dead a short time later.

According to court documents, Lewis went into the back of the transport van in handcuffs behind her back and was restrained. She was found “laying face down in the middle of the floor of the jail van” in the back “with a seatbelt around her neck.”

“I have reviewed the investigative reports, documents and video compiled by the Clay County Sheriff’s Office regarding the circumstances surrounding the death of Ms. Lewis,” Scroggins wrote in his letter declining to file charges. “I have reviewed the information to make an independent determination of whether or not there was any indication of criminally culpable conduct by any of the law enforcement officers involved in the arrest and transportation of Ms. Lewis. 

"I hereby determine there was no indication or evidence of any criminally culpable conduct by the officers involved.”

According to the Platte County Sheriff’s Office, the back of the department’s transport van has three cameras but only one was turned on during Lewis’ detainment. One comes on automatically, while the other two must be manually turned on.

The deputy driving that day did not turn on the other two. Owen did say that instructions for driving the vehicle were reviewed, and the department made sure all officers were familiar and had access to them.

“It was one of those situations where they just didn’t flip the switch,” Owen said.

However, Owen didn’t believe the other views would have revealed anymore in the case.

According to the official report, Lewis was not breathing and had no pulse and was found with vomit on herself when the transport vehicle arrived at the Platte County Government Complex. She had “a lot of stomach contents coming from her mouth and nose,” which required deputies to turn her in an attempt to drain and remove the contents.

There were no deputies nor other arrestees in the back of the van at the time of the incident.

This was in line with Platte County Sheriff’s Office policy, Owen said, and he wasn’t aware of any case where a deputy went into the back of the transport vehicle with a combative or uncooperative arrestee.

Although Lewis indicated a previous history of suicide attempts, one deputy drove the van while the other two other deputies followed behind in their patrol vehicle. 

“They’re properly restrained,” Owen said of a person being detained and transported in a transport van. “They are putting them in their for their safety. It’s not an open and shut decision on that, but the rules on transport are what we know at the time and the facts we have.”

According to official documents, the encounter with Lewis started at about 2 p.m. that day when two deputies arrived at her residence on Highway 92 just outside of Platte City to serve the order of protection, filed by her daughter earlier in the week and granted in Platte County Circuit Court that day. The request for the order cites Lewis’ perceived erratic behavior since asking her husband for a divorce that included occasionally aggressive actions toward her family.

According to the order request, the daughter lived at the house with Lewis, while her husband had moved out.

The narrative on the order of protection request said, “She acted this same way when I was a child and she was strung out on drugs.” The most recent threat of domestic abuse came four days before Lewis’ arrest when the petitioner wrote that she was “prepared for it to become physical. Her stance was as if she were going to cause physical harm.”

When deputies arrived to serve the order of protection, Lewis didn’t answer the door but suddenly emerged to place some items in her orange Jeep in the driveway, according to the incident report.

Deputies noted Lewis became “argumentative” and told them she was in the process of moving out. They then offered her time to collect personal items before leaving the premises, but when told they wanted to go inside the residence, Lewis allegedly resisted.

A deputy then grabbed the woman’s arm and told her she was under arrest for violating the order of protection.

Lewis allegedly resisted again, and a second deputy assisted in putting her in handcuffs. The report then states that she attempted to pull and “lifted her legs in the air as dead weight.” When sat on the ground, she allegedly rolled over face down and began to bang her head on the grass then inadvertently kicked one of the deputies.

At that point, the deputies asked for the jail transport van.

According to the report, Lewis told deputies she could not breathe, and they helped roll her over on her back only for her to turn back face down and bang her head on the ground. At this point, she apparently told the two deputies she had attempted suicide four times in the past and “would get it right this time.”

Another deputy arrived and placed an emergency blanket behind her head to cushion her while she continued to bang it on the ground. She continued to make suicide threats and allegedly attempted to throw herself in front of the rear wheels of the jail van as it arrived on scene.

The report states two deputies helped pull her back out of danger.

Deputies escorted her into the van, and one fastened her seatbelt with two others helping to physically restrain her. As the door closed, Lewis started to bang her head on the wall of the van while kicking the door, according to the report. Those actions aren’t visible on the camera footage The Citizen obtained because only a reflection of the back of the vehicle can be seen in the angle available.

After notifying Maj. Holland of the Platte County Sheriff’s Office of the use of force, deputies began the short trip to the Platte County Detention Center with Lewis found unresponsive at the end and pronounced dead a short time later.

The matter was then turned over to entities with Clay and Buchanan counties. Owen said he didn’t want to speculate on if the outcome could have been different with different actions taken but believes the investigation shows that the deputies acted appropriately.

“In this case, we let them do the investigation both criminally and investigatively not only to make sure the laws were followed but were we following policy,” he said.