NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Four Tennessee police officers are on furlough pending an internal investigation into how they treated a woman who died a day after she was released from the hospital but refused to leave the premises.
The Knox County District Attorney’s office announced Monday that it would not file criminal charges after an autopsy found that 60-year-old Lisa Edwards died of a stroke and that “at no point did interaction with police cause of or contributed to Mrs. Edwards’ death.”
That hasn’t stopped the public outcry after the Knoxville Police Department released video of 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 get Edwards into a police van and eventually a cruiser after receiving a call from the Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center on Feb. 5.
Edwards repeatedly asks for help, but is turned down by officers and hospital guards who become frustrated with her inability to get into the van, telling her she is pretending to be incapable.
Edwards tells them she can’t breathe, she needs help sitting up, and she’s going to have a stroke. At one point she tells them, “I’m dying.”
The first to arrive at the hospital is Sgt. Brandon Wardlaw. It’s 8 a.m. and Edwards is sitting 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 does not want to leave the premises and that they need the wheelchair back. Edwards seems somewhat disoriented and asks the officer, “Could you call the minister 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 can’t get her into it. They try to lift her up several times, but eventually leave her half in, half out of the van. Finally, she sinks to the floor, where they leave her for several minutes.
During her interaction with the 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.
As a man walks into the parking garage, Edwards calls out to him, “Doctor! Doctor!”
She asks again and again for her inhaler, but officers are unable to find it for several minutes. When they finally find it and give it to her, Wardlaw decides she’s not 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 are medically clear, ma’am. This isn’t going to work,” Barnett tells her at one point. He later complains that she doesn’t use her legs ‘on purpose’.
“Now you’re starting to piss me off! Get up!” he says to Edwards.
“This is all an act,” says Wardlaw. “If you get into jail, you better not pull this stunt because they don’t play around there.”
There is some indication in the video that officers are aware that Edwards could be in distress. When they suggest putting her in the back of the van, the driver refuses.
She says she can’t breathe. If she falls… and dies, it’s my fault,” says transportation officer Danny Dugan.
Eventually they call Agent Timothy Distasio, who decides his cruiser has a lower profile that will make it easier to get her in. The officers push her in and make her lie on her back. At this time she is squealing violently. She repeatedly asks officers to sit her up, but they tell her she can sit herself.
Video from the police car shows Edwards repeatedly trying to pull herself up, but she eventually sinks out of sight. A few minutes later, Distasio performs a traffic check on another vehicle. When he opens the back door, Edwards doesn’t respond. He calls 911 for an ambulance and tells them, “I don’t know if she’s faking it or what, but she’s not answering.”
Edwards was pronounced dead the next day at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center.
Wardlaw, Barnett, Distasio and Dugan are on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the internal investigation into their conduct, Knoxville police spokesman Scott Erland said.
According to the autopsy report, Edwards had flown from Rhode Island to Tennessee on February 4. During the flight, she developed abdominal pain and was taken to Blount Memorial Hospital around 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 appeared at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center around 1 a.m. on February 5. She 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 as a result of a stroke in 2019. She also had multiple medical problems, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to the autopsy.
Boylan said her mother-in-law moved to Rhode Island from Tennessee in 2018, but decided to move back.
“She could make her own decision, for all you know, want to move back to Tennessee. She had a plan ready. She was discharged from a nursing home that had helped her arrange her flight back to Tennessee. She was going to live with a friend in Tennessee,” Boylan told the station.