FBI looking into death of woman in Lowell police custody

The FBI is reviewing the circumstances of the death of 31-year-old Alyssa Brame, who died of alcohol poisoning while in the custody of the Lowell police, according to The Lowell Sun. Brame was arrested by Lowell police on January 12, 2013 for allegedly soliciting sex, fell unconscious, and ultimately died while in police custody. The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute anyone for Brame’s death, but an internal Board of Inquiry review by the police department found that six police officers and two civilian employees violated department policies, possibly contributing to Brame’s death. Police left Brame alone in a cell for over an hour after she lost consciousness. When she was finally checked on and found unresponsive, another 15 minutes passed before anyone called 911. The Board of Inquiry report notes that the department “has had a long-standing policy of ‘At no time will an unconscious prisoner be placed into a cell. Unconscious prisoners shall be examined by trained medical individuals as soon as possible.’”

Several of the employees involved in Brame’s death were recommended for disciplinary action by Police Superintendent William Taylor. The City of Lowell offered deals to the five employees facing the harshest punishment, which allowed them to accept lesser punishment instead of facing hearings. Lieutenant Thomas Siopes, who was in charge the night Brame died, was the only one to reject the deal offered to him, which included a demotion to patrolman and a 180-day unpaid suspension.

Now, according to the Sun:

The FBI is investigating whether federal civil-rights violations were committed by Lowell police officers the night a woman died in police custody last year, sources told The Sun.

The FBI's probe began in recent weeks and the FBI has requested documents from the city pertaining to Alyssa Brame's death in a Lowell cell block in January 2013, including the internal Police Department report on the incident, a source said.

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Special Agent Greg Comcowich, an FBI spokesman, said the FBI does not confirm or deny whether it is conducting investigations.

Police Superintendent William Taylor and City Manager Kevin Murphy declined to comment.

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Attorney Gary Nolan is one of the attorneys defending Siopes, who was recommended for termination for his actions the night Brame died.

Nolan said Taylor informed those involved with Siopes' disciplinary hearing that began last week that the FBI was reviewing the cell-block death. He said neither he, nor Siopes, nor two other officers he defended before the Board of Inquiry have been contacted by the FBI.

"While we have received no formal confirmation of a federal investigation, we certainly welcome any independent review of this case," Nolan said in a statement.

Nolan also said: "As the first week of testimony showed, the Board of Inquiry report is flawed and full of omissions ... There is a lot more to this case, and we look forward to telling the whole story."

Alice Swiridowsky-Muckle, Brame's mother, said she was thrilled to hear the FBI was investigating the circumstances surrounding her daughter's death.

"I think it is the best thing to happen to this point," Swiridowsky-Muckle said. "It is almost like Christmas to me.

"It helps knowing my daughter's death is not going to get swept under the carpet and some officers are not going to sleep easy tonight knowing it is not going to get swept under the carpet."

Siopes currently faces termination by the city for his role in Brame's death. A hearing to determine what disciplinary action he should face is currently on hold and is set to resume on August 19.

When the hearing is over, Eric Slagle, the director of Development Services who is serving as hearing officer, will make a recommendation to City Manager Kevin Murphy about what disciplinary action should be taken against Siopes. The decision will ultimately rest with Murphy.

You can read about the first four days of the hearing here.

Lowell police superintendent cross-examined during second day of lieutenant's hearing

The hearing for Lowell Police Lieutenant Thomas Siopes, whom the city seeks to fire for his role in the death of Alyssa Brame, continued yesterday, with Siopes's counsel cross-examining Police Superintendent William Taylor and attempting to poke holes in the city's case. On January 12, 2013, Brame was arrested by Lowell police for allegedly soliciting sex, fell unconscious, and ultimately died of alcohol poisoning while in police custody.

The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute anyone for Brame’s death, but an internal Board of Inquiry review by the police department found that six police officers and two civilian employees violated department policies, possibly contributing to Brame’s death. Police left Brame alone in a cell for over an hour after she lost consciousness. When she was finally checked on and found unresponsive, another 15 minutes passed before anyone called 911. The Board of Inquiry report notes that the department “has had a long-standing policy of ‘At no time will an unconscious prisoner be placed into a cell. Unconscious prisoners shall be examined by trained medical individuals as soon as possible.’”

Several of the employees involved in Brame’s death were recommended for disciplinary action by Police Superintendent William Taylor. The City of Lowell offered deals to the five employees facing the harshest punishment, which allowed them to accept lesser punishment instead of facing hearings. Siopes, who was in charge the night Brame died, was the only one to reject the deal offered to him, which included a demotion to patrolman and a 180-day unpaid suspension.

I was not able to attend the second day of the hearing, but The Lowell Sun was there to report on it:

Under questioning from Perroni during Siopes' disciplinary hearing, Taylor acknowledged that both Sgt. Michael Giuffrida and Officer William Florence, certified emergency medical technicians (EMTs), medically assessed Brame and determined she was not in medical distress.

Taylor agreed with Perroni that Florence had evaluated Brame in the holding cell and determined she had normal breathing and her chest was rising and falling.

He also confirmed to Perroni that Giuffrida had seen Brame after Siopes had seen her on the stairway and determined there was a rise and fall of her chest and that she opened and closed her eyes due to the activity around her.

Perroni also went one-by-one through five other police officials who were in Brame's presence the night she died. Taylor acknowledged none of them determined Brame was in need of medical assistance.

Furthermore:

Taylor had written in a document proposing discipline regarding Brame's death that there is "clear and strong" distinction between someone who is sleeping and someone who is unconscious.

Taylor, who testified he stood by the statement, also testified it is not a difficult determination to make.

"This determination you say is entry level and basic got by all these people, right?" Perroni asked.

"The ones you mentioned, yes," responded Taylor.

Earlier during cross-examination, Taylor said of Brame: "I think it was obvious she was unconscious."

Perroni asked Taylor if any training was provided to Lowell Police Department personnel to help them recognize the difference between someone falling asleep from intoxication and unconsciousness.

"Not that I'm aware of," said Taylor, who acknowledged that such training could be helpful.

The questions Siopes's counsel asked are a continuation of the themes laid out on Tuesday in the opening statement by Gary Nolan, another of Siopes's attorneys. Nolan suggested it wasn't obvious to Siopes that Brame needed medical attention as the city is suggesting and that the police department failed to provide adequate training to its officers.

According to the Sun, the second day ended with Siopes's counsel still in the middle of cross-examining Taylor. Based on what I saw at the first day, I expect the hearing to last at least a few more days.

When the hearing is over, Eric Slagle, the director of Development Services who is serving as hearing officer, will make a recommendation to City Manager Kevin Murphy about what disciplinary action should be taken against Siopes. The decision will ultimately rest with Murphy.

You can read our coverage of the first day of the hearing here.