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Tanisha Williams: A West Side Story 

How could Charlotte let an 18-year-old hang herself in the back of a police cruiser?

"No visisitors allowed," reads a sheet of paper attached to the door of the hospital room, high up in the intensive care unit of Carolinas Medical Center. "Don't mind the misspelling," a nurse says, jokingly, as she points out the error. "We just hadn't gotten around to fixing it."

What's the rush? It's just an oversight. But this particular oversight is a sadly fitting metaphor for the young life behind the door, barely hanging on. Her name is Tanisha Williams. She's been brain-dead in a coma since she choked herself with a seatbelt in the back of a police cruiser nearly two months ago. The case grabbed international attention and raised questions about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department procedures. How could this happen? Who's at fault? What left this 18-year-old girl feeling so desperate she'd wrap a seatbelt around her neck and pull it until she lost consciousness?

Inside her room, the teenager's eyes are unexpectedly open, her body resting on the bed with slight movement of some of her fingers. Yet she is totally unresponsive, her mind gone, perhaps permanently. Her eyes may be open, but they stare right through you.

"I am praying that God will make a miracle out of this," Williams' grandmother, Darlene Talley, says with a sigh. "I am praying that she will be able to bounce back from this."

Williams soon will be released from the hospital and into the care of Talley, who doesn't know what she's going to do with her young granddaughter. "I don't have a nursing home for her to go to," Talley says. "I am going to have to take care of her myself."

It won't be the first time. The young girl's parents were never part of her life, Talley says. "When she was born, I adopted her, and started taking care of her from the first day she came home from the hospital. Her mother was the type that wasn't ready for kids, and Tanisha was always sad about not being with her mother."

Raised by Talley in the Dillehay Courts neighborhood of Charlotte, Williams had been a lively teen who loved clothes and fashion and enjoyed partying with her many friends. "She was independent," Talley says. "She wanted her own apartment and her own job and her own car. She was trying to get into a position to take care of herself."

Williams' independence caused some poor choices and she would eventually drop out of school, says Talley. Though the teenager had been arrested four times in the last two years, including once on larceny charges, all of the cases were dismissed, and Williams was trying to get back into school.

"There were times that she got in trouble," says Talley. "She was a good person, but she wasn't always happy."

Then came Dec. 5, 2011. "I was asleep," says Talley. "Tanisha came home and took the car keys while I was sleeping," which her grandmother says was not an unusual thing for her to do.

Williams' excursion led her to the urban fashion chain Citi Trends, in a strip-mall shopping center on Freedom Drive in West Charlotte. From there, reports of what happened get fuzzy.

What we do know is this: Just before 7 p.m., someone from Citi Trends reported to law enforcement that Williams had stolen a $14 shirt. The call went to an off-duty Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer working security at the shopping center, according to CMPD Maj. Andy Leonard.

Accounts of what happened next vary. William Harding, the attorney representing the Williams family, has witnesses who say that the teenager was wearing the shirt she is accused of stealing when she entered Citi Trends; that she never used the store's dressing room, and that they even saw her stand in line to purchase items while there.

Leonard doesn't dispute much of this. "She had purchased some items at the store and was wearing the shirt at the time of arrest," says Leonard, who maintains that a not-yet-released video taken from inside Citi Trends will verify the charge of shoplifting.

Still, Harding questions the charge. "Why would someone, on one hand, steal a shirt, and then buy items from that very store which would require you to stand in line and risk getting caught?" he asks. "This whole thing doesn't make sense."

Whatever actually happened in the store, this much is true: Police arrested Williams at the scene on charges of misdemeanor larceny. Normally, given the relative insignificance of the item stolen, police would have written a citation, but Williams was demonstrably angry and refused to provide her name to the three officers at the scene, according to police.

"If you can positively identify the person, then that allows you the option of writing someone a ticket," says Leonard. "But if you can't identify them, then writing that ticket has no guarantee that you are writing it to the correct person."

As Williams screamed frantically, police handcuffed the teenager and placed her inside a Chevrolet Impala police cruiser parked in front of the shopping center.

It was then that Williams began to desperately bang her head on the side window of the vehicle and the Plexiglas divider between the front and back seats of the cruiser. Her actions were caught by a camera inside the cruiser, and police recently showed the footage to Harding, Talley and members of the media. Harding says he counted the times the teen bashed her head against the glass: 17, he says. The blows were so hard, he adds, that the glass started to crack down the middle.

Leonard says Williams' actions prompted an officer to go to another squad car for an additional restraining device besides the handcuffs she already had on. Another officer ventured into the store to finish the paperwork.

"During the tape you can hear the cops outside the car talking about donating those clothes back to the store, talking about the clothes she had just bought," says Harding. "'Do you want us to donate the clothes back to the store?' — you can hear officers say [that] to her on the tape while they are standing outside."

Meanwhile, inside the cruiser, unbeknownst to the officers, Williams was treacherously wrapping the middle seatbelt around her neck three times in such a way that it caused her to choke. Eventually, her head dropped down.

"They are right there outside the vehicle, not watching her," says Harding. "They knew she was hitting her head, and claimed they were getting restraints, but weren't watching her, and you can hear her choking on the tape, it was so loud."

One of the officers returned with an extra restraining device, but according to the CMPD, the officers figured Williams was no longer in danger because she had stopped banging her head.

According to the tape, six minutes passed between the time Williams choked and the time an officer cut off the seatbelt with a knife. "They did check her because she had stopped responding," says Leonard. "They touched her, talked to her and could tell that she was breathing."

Harding saw it this way: "One cop opens the door and says, 'It look like she's still breathing,' and closes it. And one says [to Williams], 'If you don't give us your name, that is another day in jail and we're going to charge you with obstructing and resisting.'"

An officer then entered the front of the vehicle, told Williams she could still be charged as Jane Doe, and then exited the car. Then he shined a light on her from the side, opened the side door and finally discovered the seatbelt around the teenager's neck. He yelled out an expletive, and called the other officers for help in cutting off the seatbelt.

Williams was then taken out of the vehicle, where officers performed procedures to help her breathe while they waited for medics and the fire department to arrive. She was then rushed to the hospital where she remains.

Initial media coverage of the incident left questions unanswered, fuelling racially charged speculation about police brutality. The news that a young girl hanged herself while in custody seemed too astonishing to be true, and some critics wildly charged that it was an occurrence of depraved police brutality and that the explanation of attempted suicide was a cover-up. The incident even caught the attention of some Atlanta-based members of the Black Liberation Institute, who politicized the case during an unattended rally in front of the store on Jan. 7.

In response, the CMPD eventually released the video, which clearly dispels issues of brutality but leaves open questions about negligence on the part of the arresting officers. Williams' family has called on the officers involved to step down, and could pursue legal action against CMPD and the City of Charlotte. None of the officers involved have stepped down, but the department is still investing the case.

Generally, the police have no duty to protect individuals from harm before taking them into custody; however, when an individual is taken into custody, different standards come into play. Per the directives of the police department: "Visual observation of prisoners must be maintained by the transporting officers at all times. Under no circumstance will a prisoner in custody be left unattended in a transport vehicle."

Arguably, those directives were violated during the time Williams wrapped the belt around her neck. This could lead to a claim of negligence against the officers. Moreover, the family also could try to sue the officers' employers for an alleged civil rights violation.

"A Section 1983 civil rights action would be an allegation made on the behalf of this young woman that her constitutional rights were in some way violated on that tragic day," says Professor Scarlet Moore of the Charlotte School of Law. "Such a violation might potentially be an unlawful arrest, or conduct that constitutes deliberate indifference to her welfare."

Were these officers negligent? There's a potent argument to be made that they were, based on the video evidence and police directives. Were Tanisha Williams' constitutional rights violated? There's at least a case to be made for this, too.

Beyond the legal ramifications or any politicization of this case from organizations outside Charlotte are the underlying societal concerns.

The following are facts: A teenager who purchased items from Citi Trends was somehow arrested and charged with shoplifting. As she sat inside a police cruiser, cracking the divider window with her skull, officers stood by and considered donating clothes she had legally purchased back to Citi Trends — essentially stealing from her after arresting her on charges of stealing from the store. When Williams stopped banging her head, the officers only checked to make sure she was still breathing, never considering she might have knocked herself unconscious from banging the glass and needed medical attention. In their assumption that Williams had suddenly gone from raving mad to completely still and silent, the officers failed to realize that in that darkened backseat, while in their custody, this girl's life was fading fast because she had just choked herself.

Tanisha Williams may have been an overreacting teenager, screaming and refusing to provide her name; she also may or may not have been guilty of shoplifting in one of the more perilous parts of the city. But Williams is still a human being deserving of respect. What's more, it is nearly impossible to imagine that police would have allowed a seemingly innocent rich girl, in a different neighborhood, to smash her head in a police cruiser 17 times, or even consider taking items she had purchased and giving them back to the store.

"I feel that if it had been a white child from Ballantyne, there would have been a more orchestrated community outcry," says the Rev. Kojo Nantambu, president of the Charlotte chapter of the NAACP. "But I also don't think it would have ever happened. This is part of an economic and cultural bias. Had it been in a different area, the authorities might have acted differently.

"I think it was a serious tragedy with serious negligence involved, whether it was racial or cultural," Nantambu adds. "And when I say cultural, (I mean) they looked at her as a thief. Injustice is injustice. It doesn't matter if it was injustice to a criminal or injustice to somebody on Wall Street."

This is not to say Tanisha Williams had no role in her fate. A troubled girl, she snuck out with her grandmother's car and took her life into her own hands when faced with a minor shoplifting charge. Yet it's hard to not feel overwhelming sadness while caught in the gaze of her blank eyes as she lay in her hospital room. Sadness about a world outside that Williams now remains barely part of, a world where she hardly even registered when she was fully awake.

Outside Williams' hospital room is a city with many communities disconnected, and some forgotten altogether, presided over by an effete liberal class too preoccupied with noise ordinances and leadership rankings on the county commission to tackle bigger issues of inequality and ingrained degradation. A community more energized about volunteering for the presidential re-election campaign than volunteering to organize and stabilize Charlotte neighborhoods. City leadership all too eager to forget the Tanisha Williamses of our communities in order to create an exemplary image when the eyes of the world turn to Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention in less than a year.

"There is a whole lot more that Charlotte could do, that it should do," says Nantambu, "but it seems like there's a whole lot that Charlotte won't do."

What city leaders forget is that we are all Tanisha Williams. She is ours. Just as much ours as that sparkling new Duke Power building downtown.

Mike Cooper is a student at the Charlotte School of Law and was a 2009 New Leaders Fellow at the Center for Progressive Leadership. He was born and raised in North Wilkesboro, N.C.

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