"On June 10, 2020, Ms. Priscilla Slater was 37-years-old when she died of natural causes while housed in a Harper Woods Police Department jail cell. She was cogent and appropriate when speaking with the police and jail staff and did not complain of any medical issues while she was in the jail. There was no evidence that she was in any way harmed or mistreated while in custody. This case investigation took an extraordinary amount of time and attention due to a number of circumstances outlined in our press release," said Prosecutor Worthy.
"An exhaustive investigation was conducted by the Michigan State Police. We have looked at all of the facts and evidence in the case. This included the findings of the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office, as well as those of an independent medical examiner. It took several months to obtain Ms. Slater's medical records which were important to any findings made in this case. All of the medical experts that reviewed the case determined that Ms. Slater died a natural death from Sudden Cardiac Death, in other words, a heart attack while she was in jail. She had significant pre-existing factors that likely contributed to the heart attack."
"I have met with Ms. Slater's sister to explain our decision in this matter. While our thoughts and prayers are with Ms. Slater's family, for the reasons cited no charges will be issued."
"There is also insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the civilian aide on duty when Ms. Slater died failed to perform his duties or performed them in a negligent way. Nor is there any way to show that in the brief period after Ms. Slater's heart attack whether medical intervention might have saved her life."
Summary of the Facts
Priscilla Slater, (DOB:09/04/1982) and her boyfriend, Lewis Nichols, (DOB:12/28/1992), both of Detroit, were arrested by Harper Woods Police on June 9, 2020 at 1:40 a.m. at the Park Crest Motel on Eight Mile Road following a reported shooting. The responding HWPD officers interviewed witnesses, viewed surveillance video from the motel and found Ms. Slater and Mr. Nichols asleep in the backseat of a Monte Carlo in the hotel parking lot.
The officers' body worn camera video shows the two were roused from the backseat, emerged slowly, and were apparently intoxicated. Both parties were placed under arrest. Ms. Slater admitted to drinking and denied having taken drugs. Police found a handgun in the trunk of the Monte Carlo. They also found ammunition in the same caliber in a purse that Ms. Slater admitted was hers, along with a bag containing 11-grams of Fentanyl. She later admitted the drugs were hers for personal use in a video recorded, Mirandized statement.
Ms. Slater's arrest and transport to HWPD were recorded by body worn and scout cameras with only minor gaps in the cameras' coverage constituting less than two minutes, a minute and a half of which was Ms. Slater sitting alone in the backseat of a police car. The only recorded physical contact anyone had with Ms. Slater during this time was an officer arresting her, conducting a brief pat down, and helping guide her to the police car.The arresting officer noted that Ms. Slater had a cut above her left ankle, which she attributed to an accident with her sister's gate some days before. She declined any medical treatment.
The Harper Woods Police Department was equipped with a surveillance system, which was operational and recording during Ms. Slater's time in custody. Our office received these feeds and reviewed all recordings.
A Civilian Aide (hereinafter CA 1) conducted Ms. Slater's booking intake at the Harper Woods Police Department, which was captured on body camera and internal HWPD surveillance with audio. The internal camera in the booking room is and was motion activated and its recording of the booking procedure contains significant time gaps. The recording did capture the part of the booking procedure where the CA1 inquired whether Ms. Slater was on any medication or had any medical conditions.
Specifically, Ms. Slater was asked, "You haven't taken no (sic) type of drugs or anything? Let us know because if you get sick that's the only way I can protect you." Slater replied, "No, no I haven't taken anything." The medical issues she did note during booking were that she had asthma for which she had an inhaler, anemia, and an allergy to mustard. She never requested medical treatment at any point during these recordings. During booking and after it was completed, Ms. Slater complained of being cold. CA1 told her that he knew that her cell was particularly cold. When they completed the booking procedure, he led her to a cell, and gave her an extra blanket. Surveillance video shows that on the 9th at 10:23 a.m., Ms. Slater was removed from the cell and interrogated by a Harper Woods detective. This interrogation was also audio and video recorded and reviewed by our office.Ms. Slater waived her Miranda rights, then admitted to being drunk the night before and to knowingly possessing what she referred to as heroin for her personal use. (The substance was later field tested by the Michigan State Police and identified as Fentanyl.) She denied being high or drunk at the time of the interrogation, nor did she request any assistance or treatment.
The detective indicated that she responded appropriately while being questioned and did not appear or sound to be in any physical distress during in the interrogation. In the video, Slater did not appear to be in medical distress or under the influence.
Ms. Slater was transferred back to her cell on June 9th at 10:45 a.m. She was continuously recorded while in her cell and our office reviewed all of it. This video camera did not have audio recording capabilities. Ms. Slater appeared to mostly sleep for the remainder of her life. She appeared to vomit twice during the evening.
After the second time she vomited she looked towards the door while lying on the bed. About 30 seconds later, another camera feed shows a female CA (hereinafter CA2) came into the booking room and made an entry on what appears to be the welfare log, suggesting she spoke with Ms. Slater. Nothing is noted on the log about illness or vomiting during this or any time period. Ms. Slater spent the rest of her hours laying down, moving around in a manner suggesting she was trying to get comfortable, and drinking water.From the Department's installed camera angles, it is not possible to see whether someone is physically at the cell door, nor if anyone is lifting the metal flap on the cell door to check on the occupant. The video does show whether the cell door is opened and if someone enters. The cell's bed corner at which Slater chose to lay her head made her body under a blanket visible from approximately the shoulders to her feet.
Ms. Slater's death was captured in this video. After her apparent contact with CA2 she did not appear to call out or summon help at any time before or during her death. It appears that her death was quick, and her physical signs of distress limited to less than one minute.
Later in the morning, another Civilian Aide (CA 3) entered the cell to bring her breakfast, but quickly left. Ms. Slater was not discovered to be deceased until a female CA (hereinafter CA4) entered the cell at 12:36 p.m., could not wake her and called for help. There was a male police officer who was the first to discover he lifeless body in the cell. The Harper Woods Fire Department also came quickly since they are located adjacent to HWPD.Medical Examiners Autopsies and Opinions
Wayne County Medical Examiner Theresa Nguyen
Although Ms. Slater admitted to being intoxicated upon arrest, her postmortem toxicology screens were negative for ethanol or anything illegal. There was no indication of heroin or fentanyl in her system. WCMEO Dr. Theresa Nguyen determined that Slater died of natural causes due to cardiac dysrhythmia of undetermined etiology, also noted an abnormally shaped heart valve was anatomically significant. Chief Wayne County Medical Examiner Carl Schmidt reviewed this matter and countersigned Dr. Nguyen's autopsy report.
This abnormality can cause sudden death through heart dysrhythmia, though such a diagnosis can only be made during an individual's lifetime, rather than postmortem. A cardiac pathologist from the University of Michigan was consulted and concurred with this diagnosis that the examination revealed no evidence of injury. Dr. Nguyen was unable to conclude that a call for medical help would have saved Ms. Slater's life had someone realized she was not sleeping around the 5:30 a.m. welfare check. Dr. Nguyen determined that this conclusion could only have be based on speculation.
Although medical records for Ms. Slater were requested in 2020, they were not made available to the WCPO until March 22, 2021. These records were then turned over to Dr. Nguyen, as well as an independent medical examiner retained by the WCPO. Dr. Nguyen reviewed them and opined that the records corroborated her cause and manner of death. She indicated that she would not be issuing an amended report, because her opinion on cause and manner of death remained the same.Informal Opinion by Oakland County Medical Examiner Dr. Lubjisa Dragovic
In a November 12, 2020 article, a Detroit Free Press reporter emailed a copy of the Wayne County Medical Examiner's report and asked Oakland County Medical Examiner Dr. Lubjisa Dragovic about Ms. Slater's cause of death. He opined that she likely died of alcohol withdrawal syndrome.
Dr. Dragovic was interviewed by WCPO on November 16, 2020. He said that he spoke with her over the phone. He indicated that he did not have access to, nor had he reviewed any actual materials created during the autopsy including photographs, tissue slides, or Ms. Slater's medical records. He had no knowledge about the contents of police reports or the HWPD cell video recordings. During the interview he characterized his statements in the article as merely a possibility.
Independent Expert Medical Examiner Dr. Joyce L. deJong ( Medical Examiner for Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Calhoun, Case, Grande Travers, Kalamazoo, Leelanau, Mason, Muskegon, Osceola, St. Joseph and Van Buren Counties)
After the Free Press article citing Dr. Dragovic, WCPO decided to seek the opinion of an independent medical examiner. In December 2020, WCPO retained Dr. Joyce deJong of the Western Michigan University Medical School, who is also the Medical Examiner for twelve counties in western Michigan, to give an independent opinion as to Ms. Slater's cause and manner of death.
Dr. deJong determined that the cause of death was Sudden Cardiac Death and the manner of death was natural. Dr. deJong's opinion generally concurred with Dr. Nguyen's. However, Dr. deJong attributed the cause of death to Sudden Cardiac Death due to cardiomegaly (enlarged heart) and hypertensive cardiovascular disease (high blood pressure). She noted that significant factors that may have contributed to her death included alcohol use withdrawal and hepatic steatosis (fatty liver). She also noted that narrowed, slit-like coronary ostia may also cause or contribute to a sudden cardiac death.
Dr. deJong explained that acute alcohol use withdrawal is associated with increased incidence of cardiac arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death. Fatty liver is not a standalone cause of death, but like alcohol use withdrawal, its presence is associated with increased cardiac arrhythmias and consequently sudden death. Fatty liver can result from alcohol use disorder and obesity.
Harper Woods P.D. Rules and Policies Regarding Civilian Aides
Harper Woods Department of Public Safety General Order 15-16 defines Civilian Aides as non-sworn members of the department that may also be referred to as a "Detention Officer".
They are responsible for monitoring the safety and health of persons in custody locked in cells or otherwise restrained. While booking and prisoner supervision are the civilian aides' primary function, they also assist as needed with other, non-law enforcement tasks in the department.
The "Harper Woods Detainee Welfare Check Log" is used to record the physical checks of the well-being of the persons in custody. It is also used to record any unusual events or change in status of the persons in custody.
General Order 15-16 also indicates that a detention officer will "physically view" each prisoner at minimum every 30 minutes. Viewing a prisoner by video does not qualify as a physical check. Breakfast is to be served between 8am and 9am, lunch from 12pm to 1pm, and dinner from 5pm to 6pm.
The investigation has not revealed any sworn patrol officers on duty assigned specifically to periodically monitor the inmates at the time of Ms. Slater's incarceration. Ms. Slater's welfare log confirmed interactions with Civilian Aides and strongly suggest that the top and bottom of the hour checks are typically not conducted at the stroke of the minute, but rather generally speaking around the time. The rationale for varying inmate check times is that standard, exact times can allow prisoners to time the checks, which could be used for escape or attack.
The logs for June 9th and 10th show that Ms. Slater was checked every 30 minutes. CA1 signed his badge number, in every 30-minute slot for his shifts on both days. MSP handwriting analyst could not conclude when the boxes were filled in relative to actual time. There is no written policy that the form must be filled within a certain time of the check. As previously stated, there is no video covering the hallway outside Ms. Slater's cell to show if the 30-minute bed checks were being performed.
CA1 and the other CAs who worked while Ms. Slater was incarcerated cooperated with the investigation. CA1 accurately recalled many details about Ms. Slater's booking. He confirmed that on June 10th he made half-hour checks of Ms. Slater either by either the flap in the cell door or by security camera. He could not recall how he did his last check, which would have been around 5:30 a.m. He indicated that he observed her sleeping and changing positions throughout his shift and "thought everything was ok". He did not have any actual overnight interaction with her other than making his visual observations, noting that he noticed she was a shallow breather. Harper Woods policies do not call for waking up sleeping inmates for checks during nighttime hours.
Ms. Slater died of natural causes, likely due to heart attack resulting from her heart's physical condition, though possibly exacerbated by alcohol withdrawal or fatty liver disease. Her physical signs of distress as she died were limited to only a few seconds. These facts strongly indicate that no one was criminally responsible for her death.
It is clear that no one assaulted or physically harmed Ms. Slater while she was in custody. There are no criminal charges that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in this case.
WCPO is unable to prove that Ms. Slater's natural manner of death was caused by any act or failure to perform a legally required act by CA1. Accordingly, the case is denied.
No Charges to Issue in Allegation of Altering Harper Woods Police Report in the Priscilla Slater Case
The allegation in this matter was that on June 10, 2020 a former Harper Woods Deputy Police Chief directed a subordinate police officer to remove a portion of his report in the Priscilla Slater case claiming he identified "rigor" in her body. Our review indicates the officer was not directed to make any changes but was instead questioned about his use of a medical term and whether he was qualified to properly use that term.
The officer in question was the first to respond to Ms. Slater's cell after her death. According to a review of the HWPD report writing software's revision history for the report in question, the officer changed a sentence in his report to, "There was no response to noise, so I put on rubber gloves and grabbed Slater's left wrist area. Slater was cold to the touch and had no pulse." The sentence previously made a reference to the officer observing rigor mortis.
The facts of the investigation corroborate the former Deputy Chief's neutral rationale for his recommendation to the officer, which was that the reporting officer did not have proper training or medical expertise to use the medical term "rigor" in a report. The former Deputy Chief further justified the change, noting that he knew the Harper Woods Fire Department (HWFD) rescue personnel who responded to check Slater's condition within minutes of the officer and would fully document their medical findings. The investigation revealed that HWFD did, in fact, document that Slater's body was cold to the touch, had fixed, dependent lividity, and rigor mortis.
The former Deputy Chief did not appear to exert any undue or improper influence upon the officer when he suggested the change. The officer did not directly protest the order to the former Deputy Chief or any other superior officers when it was given or afterward, as would have been proper under HWPD protocol. The recommended change was made in the context of routine review of the subordinate's draft report for accuracy and completeness, and therefore does not constitute criminal action or an intent to subvert a criminal investigation. Accordingly, no charges will issue.