Seven Harford County Sheriff's Office deputies who had been placed on routine leave after a drug suspect died following a vehicle pursuit and his arrest last month were cleared to return to work Thursday.
The seven had been on administrative leave with pay following the death of Arvel Douglas Williams on Aug. 20. The deputies were placed back in service once they completed formal written statements Wednesday, Cristie Kahler, spokesperson for the Sheriff's Office said.
Kahler said the statements have been forwarded to the Baltimore County Police Department's Criminal Investigation Division, which is investigating the incident because the apprehension of Williams occurred in that county.
"There is no indication from Baltimore County CID that the deputies' actions contributed to death, so they have returned to work," Kahler said.
Baltimore County Police investigators had been waiting for the Harford deputies' statements before interviewing them, Elise Armacost, chief spokesperson for Baltimore County Police and Fire said late Wednesday afternoon. Investigators were also waiting for a determination of the cause and manner of death by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, she said.
"Our investigation is in progress," she said.
According to Armacost, no Baltimore County officers are the subject of the investigation.
Williams, who was 30 and had a Baltimore address, suffered what police say was a medical emergency after being Tasered and taken into custody by Harford County Sheriff's Office deputies following a vehicle pursuit from Joppa into Baltimore County.
Kahler said the seven deputies, who are involved in the pending investigation, include the two who used their Tasers on Williams, three others who were directly involved in his apprehension and two who administered CPR and other medical assistance to Williams.
"We had to go from start to finish and identify everyone who was involved at what juncture," she explained.
According to statements released by the two police agencies following the incident, Harford deputies had observed Williams and his vehicle, a Ford Ranger pickup, involved in suspected drug activity near the intersection of Routes 7 and 152 in Joppa, shortly after 8 p.m. on Aug. 20. When deputies attempted to stop him, Williams drove off and multiple sheriff's units pursued him west on Route 7 into Baltimore County, at speeds ranging between 35 and 60 mph, the Sheriff's Office said in its statement.
The pursuit continued along Route 7 to Cowenton Avenue in White Marsh. Williams turned north onto Cowenton and drove to East Joppa Road in Perry Hall where there is a traffic circle and where, according to Baltimore County Police, Williams drove his pickup into a marked Baltimore County Police car responding to assist, disabling both vehicles.
Both agencies say Williams resisted arrest and Harford deputies used their Tasers to subdue him. Williams was handcuffed and was talking to the police officers when he began experiencing medical distress, according to the Sheriff's Office. He was uncuffed and CPR was administered until emergency medical personnel arrived and took him to Franklin Square Hospital in Rosedale, where he died at 9:05 p.m.
The two police agencies say evidence gathered at the scene, including what was described as a white, powdery substance found on Williams face and inside his vehicle, indicated that Williams may have ingested a controlled dangerous substance prior to being arrested.
Nine Harford cars involved
In responding Thursday to a series of written questions about the incident submitted by The Aegis last month, Kahler explained that "deputies observed a suspected drug transaction and attempted to stop Mr. Williams as a result of that observation."
Nine Sheriff's Office vehicles – each occupied by a single deputy – were involved in the ensuing pursuit, what Kahler said was a "coordinated effort to follow Mr. Williams, anticipate his route, circumvent and close roads, as well as, attempt to deploy strike strips in an effort to safely bring the pursuit to conclusion."
According to Kahler, in addition to driving off when deputies first tried to stop him in Joppa, attempting to turn his vehicle 360 degrees in the East Joppa Road roundabout and putting his vehicle in reverse several times after he rammed the Baltimore County Police car, Williams "gave every indication he was going to flee," once he was out of his vehicle.
"When he exited the vehicle, deputies on the scene report[ed], he was shuffling around, darting back and forth and appeared to be looking for a direction to run," Kahler wrote. "He was asked to get on the ground several times, but refused. The totality of the incident, and his body language at the scene indicated his intent to flee."
Williams appears to have been unarmed, according to Kahler.
"After speaking with HCSO deputies, it is our preliminary understanding that Mr. Williams did not have a weapon on his person," she wrote, adding that to the knowledge of the Sheriff's Office, no weapon was recovered from his vehicle. She noted, however, that the Baltimore County Police investigation "will include a thorough search of the vehicle.
Prior drug conviction
Williams, who had prior addresses in Baltimore and Edgewood, pleaded guilty in 2004 to possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, stemming from a 2003 Harford County Task Force raid on an Edgewood hotel room, where he was found with drugs and packaging materials, according to court records. He received a 20-year prison sentence, with all but three years suspended, and served a year before being paroled in early 2005.
He later faced multiple drug possession and possession with intent to distribute charges in a 2006 case that began with a traffic stop in Joppa for an alleged window tinting violation. Quantities of marijuana, powdered cocaine and crack cocaine were found in the trunk of Williams' vehicle, after an Sheriff's Office K9 unit arrived as backup and the dog alerted for drugs on the outside of the vehicle, according to court records. That case was ultimately dropped after Williams' lawyer successfully challenged the probable cause for the traffic stop that led to the drug search.
Williams' death was the fifth involving police and a Harford County criminal suspect since mid-August 2013.
In the four prior deaths, the suspects were fatally shot: two in hostage situations, one during a suspected burglary and one during a chase following a burglary. Sheriff's deputies were the shooters in the first three, Maryland State Police troopers and an Aberdeen Police Department officer in the fourth.
All four shootings were reviewed by the Harford County State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly, who found them justifiable.
Kahler said Thursday that the Sheriff's Office consulted with Cassilly's office at the time of the Williams death; however, Cassilly said last week he would not be involved further.