When Mesquite police arrived at a local middle school late on a summer night in 2013, Graham Dyer was pounding his head on the ground. Earlier, witnesses reported seeing him ram his head into a building. A friend explained that the 18-year-old was experiencing a bad LSD trip.
Police have a legal duty to care for their prisoners, and after Dyer was handcuffed, two medics were called to the scene. But their evaluation was brief — no report of his exam was created — and they quickly left. One Mesquite officer later termed the medics “worthless.”
The officers nevertheless have cited the examination to demonstrate they provided adequate care for the teenager, whose in-custody death the American-Statesman profiled earlier this year. But newly filed court documents show that after the medics left, police continued to observe Dyer acquire an accumulation of serious injuries. Time and again, they failed to take action that could have saved his life.
While being loaded into a cruiser, Dyer banged his head several times against the car. During the first mile on the drive to the city jail, he slammed his head 19 times against the side door, back seat or metal cage separating the car’s front and back.
Halfway to the jail, in what they have described as an attempt to calm him down, the officers pulled to the side of the road. One used his Taser, shocking Dyer in his testicles.
Some police departments call for a medical evaluation after Taser use. Instead of diverting to the emergency room a half-mile away, however, the officers resumed driving. No additional restraints were applied, and during the second half of the trip Dyer hit his head against the car’s interior 27 more times.
At the jail, officers unloaded the handcuffed and leg-tied Dyer onto the sally-port floor outside the jail. There, they watched him bang his head again on the concrete pad.
Despite the approximately 50 blows they’d observed to the teen’s head since his on-scene medical evaluation, none of the officers could recall informing the jail staff of the trauma. Nor, apparently, was a medical examination performed during the custody transfer. No medical intake form was completed.
Medical help wasn’t summoned until two hours later, when a guard noticed Dyer was unresponsive in his cell. He died the next day at a Dallas hospital — an accident due to self-inflicted blunt force trauma, according to the Dallas County medical examiner’s office.
Family fought for videos
The outlines of Dyer’s death were reported by the Statesman in April. The details of what his family claims was fatal medical negligence by Mesquite police have trickled out from police depositions and other court documents as part of a civil lawsuit his parents have filed against five officers.
In it, Kathy and Robert Dyer assert that in addition to using excessive force on their son, police ignored his medical needs even though they knew or should have known the severity of his injuries. They also note several important inconsistencies in what police first reported happened to Graham and what actually occurred.
The lawsuit initially was thwarted by the Police Department’s refusal to give the Dyers records related to Graham’s death.
READ: Statesman study of 300 deaths in police custody finds officers rarely disciplined
Mesquite was able to withhold them because of a Texas law that says law enforcement agencies don’t have to turn over their records if a defendant isn’t convicted of a crime. Graham was charged with assault for allegedly biting an officer in the finger while being arrested, but he was never convicted because he died before his case could be heard. Without the reports and videos, the family’s lawsuit against the Mesquite officers was quickly dismissed because it contained insufficient details of the incident.
Desperate for information, Kathy and Robert had also asked the FBI to investigate Graham’s death. Although the federal agency ultimately decided it was unable to bring a civil rights case against the Mesquite officers, the Dyers realized they could circumvent city officials by asking the bureau for the records it had reviewed during its investigation. More than two years after their son’s death, the federal agency turned over dashcam videos of that night.
The images appeared to show that Mesquite police had failed to properly restrain Graham in the back of the car. They also depicted the officer shocking him in the testicles — a detail the Dyers would not have known about because police had omitted it from their incident report.
After publication of the article, the office of Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson announced it would review the case. In June, prosecutors concluded there was sufficient evidence to charge the Mesquite officers with criminally negligent homicide for shocking Graham in his testicles while he was handcuffed and failing to restrain him in the back of their cruiser. Yet due to the expiration of the three-year statute of limitations, the officers could not be prosecuted. All continue to work for the department, according to Texas Commission on Law Enforcement records.
Using the new information from the videos, Kathy and Robert refiled their federal lawsuit. This time, with the added details, the federal judge allowed the case against the Mesquite police officers to proceed. U.S. District Judge Jane Boyle also ordered the department to release more documents and said the family could start questioning the officers under oath to learn more details of what occurred the night of Graham’s death.
Police: Injuries ‘sadly, self-inflicted’
Mesquite spokesman Wayne Larson said city officials would not speak about Graham’s death. But the police have defended their actions in court filings.
“Mr. Dyer was banging his head on whatever was available; thus, it can only be assumed that any alleged head injury he received was, sadly, self-inflicted,” according to a document filed last month. “As to the inattention to medical needs claim, there is no evidence in this record that any officer subjectively drew the inference that Mr. Dyer was experiencing a severe medical issue as opposed to the minor bruising observed by some, not all, of the arresting officers.
“Further, the officers summoned paramedics to examine Mr. Dyer and reasonably relied upon the fact that he was examined and his behavior remained unchanged afterwards.”
The Dyers have noted that, at the least, the depositions given by the five police officers who responded to the middle school on Aug. 13, 2013, have challenged the official version of Graham’s arrest that police initially presented to them.
In their pleadings, police described Graham and his friends as belligerent and combative. But in individual depositions, the officers conceded the teens were mostly cooperative. Graham, for example, was kept on the ground for more than 10 minutes with modest effort, they said.
“For the 11 or so minutes he was laying there, did you see anything on that video showing any officer doing anything to restrain Graham other than handcuffing him, using a foot to keep him on the ground, and the two seconds that officer (Zachery) Scott put his hand on Graham’s head?” asked Susan Hutchison, the Dyers’ attorney.
“No, ma’am,” officer William Heidelberg replied.
In their original incident report, the Mesquite officers had written: “Dyer could not calm down and walk to the patrol unit, therefore officers had to carry Dyer to the patrol unit.” Yet the video depicts him walking to the cruiser.
At the jail, the police report again described Graham as combative: “It took multiple officers and detention officers to remove Dyer from the back seat of the patrol unit, escort him inside the jail, and placed him in a restraint chair and padded cell for his safety.” The video, however, shows him lying mostly motionless on the ground.
“Their representation of what happened is vastly different from what is seen in the videos,” Hutchison said.
‘Quit hitting your (expletive) head’
In their depositions, the Mesquite officers say they recognized Graham was probably on some type of drug and in mental and physical distress. When he wasn’t screaming unintelligibly he repeatedly asked where he was. Witnesses had reported him slamming his head against various objects.
Officer Alan Gafford recalled the left side of Graham’s head was swollen and bleeding. The officers summoned a Mesquite Fire Department medical crew.
Some confusion remains over the evaluation Graham received while at the scene of his arrest, according to court documents. The judge has not permitted the Dyers’ lawyers to interview the paramedics who responded to the scene, Hutchison said, adding that the only written report the medics produced was for their treatment of the Mesquite officer’s bite injury. So the family has had to rely on the recollections of police and audio from their cameras.
In the video, the documents say, the medic crouches down next to Graham, who is handcuffed on the ground. His exam takes four minutes.
Although the audio is not clear, Gafford testified that the medics said, “We’re not going to be able to check him.” In their depositions, police said they understood that to mean Graham had been medically cleared to be transported to the jail.
Yet the officers acknowledged they observed Graham’s continued distress and self-harm. Inside the cruiser, Graham sounded disoriented, asking where he was. Scott acknowledged in his deposition that Graham began violently slamming his head around the back of the car, which can be seen in the video.
“It doesn’t look good, and it doesn’t sound good,” Scott said.
The driver, Heidelberg, also noted that Graham could be hurting himself. “Quit hitting your (expletive) head,” he can be heard saying. Watching from the cruiser following, “I could actually see the car shaking from side to side,” Gafford recalled.
Jerry Station, a former Austin police officer and use of force expert who has reviewed the case for the Dyers, said it should have been clear Graham needed immediate medical care. “If you see someone go through what that young man went through in the back of that car, there’s no justification for not calling medical response,” he said.
There is no discussion heard among the officers about medical treatment, however. Rather, after driving about a mile, they pull to the side of the road. In what he said was an attempt to gain control of Graham, Gafford used his Taser.
Hospital ‘never entered my mind’
In court documents, Gafford said the back of the car was dark so he couldn’t see where he was placing the electric weapon to shock Graham, which he described as a “control tactic.” He added that the video that appears to depict him pushing his Taser directly against Graham’s testicles was misleading.
“Aren’t you tasing him just right smack in the genitals?” he is asked.
“No,” he replied. “I call that the inner thigh.”
After the electric stuns, officers said, they did not attempt to further restrain Graham. As the car restarted toward the jail, he resumed slamming his head against its interior.
In an internal Police Department summary of the incident, an investigator viewing the in-car video counted more than two dozen additional head strikes. In his deposition, Gafford said it appeared Graham’s self-harm was, if anything, even more violent than before the stop.
So, Hutchison asked, would that have been an appropriate time to call back the paramedics for medical treatment and transport to the hospital.
“I would say that that wasn’t an option, that he’s in custody at that point. We’re trying to get him to the jail,” Gafford replied. “I would say that never entered my mind.”
When asked in depositions, each of the Mesquite officers said he did not relay the information about Graham’s possible head injuries to jail staffers.
Though city jails are not regulated like county and state lockups, most jails require that prisoners undergo a medical and psychological intake evaluation “before they are placed behind a locked cell door,” said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Those in severe distress typically are ordered to the hospital for evaluation and treatment.
Graham’s intake form to the Mesquite jail, however, is blank, with a single handwritten notation in the left margin referencing the medical call after he was discovered unresponsive in his cell: “@ approx. o150 hrs (Mesquite Fire Department) was summoned. He was evaluated and transported to Baylor Dallas.”