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.

Thursday links (7/3/14)

Debunking the myth that immigrants "steal" jobs. Seven reasons police brutality is systemic, not anecdotal.

The FBI can search the government's PRISM database for information that has nothing to do with terrorism, but claims to have no idea how many times it does so.

Newly released FBI report reveals connections between the 9/11 hijackers and Saudis who fled two weeks prior to the attacks, information that the FBI never passed on to the 9/11 Commission.

Wednesday links (6/18/14)

A Nahant town administrator is under investigation for allegedly improperly funneling public contracts to favored contractors. Cambridge is considering regulations that would ban Uber and similar transportation services.

Westfield State University cited for failing to comply with the Massachusetts public records law.

When Aaron Swartz spoofed his MAC address, it proved he was a criminal. When Apple does it, it's good for everyone.

The FBI has a hilarious guide to Twitter slang (some of which is fake).

How anonymous sourcing became the rule rather than the exception in journalism.

Why did the government send a SWAT team after Khairullozhon Matanov?

Last Friday, Quincy resident Khairullozhon Matanov was arrested at his apartment by a SWAT team and several FBI agents as part of the Boston Marathon bombing investigation. According to The Boston Globe:

Matanov was charged with obstruction of justice by destruction, alteration, and falsification of records or documents in a federal investigation, which carries a punishment of up to 20 years in prison. He was also charged with three counts of making false statements to agents in a terrorism investigation, each of which carries a punishment of up to eight years in prison.

Matanov, a friend of the Tsarnaevs, is accused of lying to investigators and deleting files from his computer. There are no allegations that he played a role in the bombing.

The government had been conducting aerial surveillance of Matanov since shortly after the bombing and had interviewed him a number of times over the past year before deciding to charge him.

One interesting aspect of this story that hasn't gotten enough attention is the government's decision to conduct a forced-entry raid on Matanov's home when they arrested him. As Kade Crockford of the Privacy SOS blog writes, "The FBI spent considerable resources monitoring Matanov from the sky and physically at his apartment for over a year, but despite officials’ familiarity with him and his home, they sent a SWAT team to break down his door at four in the morning to arrest him."

The crimes Matanov is accused of are all nonviolent. Even if Matanov lied to investigators and deleted relevant information from his computer, it sounds as though he was otherwise cooperative, so what was the point of breaking down his door at 4 A.M. and freaking out his neighbors?

Was it to intimidate Matanov? Or was it a piece of theater to make Matanov seem scarier to the public than he really is?

Thursday links (5/29/14)

The murder conviction for ex-FBI agent and "Whitey" Bulger associate John Connolly has been overturned on a technicality involving the statute of limitations:

A Worcester police officer shot at a knife-wielding man yesterday morning, but none of the shots hit him.

A federal appeals court has upheld the right of a New Hampshire woman to record police. New Hampshire is in the same district as Massachusetts, so this will likely be cited as precedent in future court cases here.

Edward Snowden unlikely to return to the US due to the legal threats against him by the US government. Snowden's lawyer says the only way he is likely to come back is if the government agrees to some sort of negotiated settlement.

The NSA rejects a FOIA request to protect Edward Snowden's privacy (!).

Obama plans to leave almost 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. Who will be the last person to die for a mistake?

Why new laws are an ineffective response to tragedies.

Saturday links (5/24/14)

Newly released documents show that the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, which is supposed to gather information about terrorist threats, used its resources to closely monitor legal activities by Occupy Boston activists. Perhaps that's part of the reason why the government failed to stop the Boston Marathon bombing. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has asked the Florida state attorney to re-open his investigation of the shooting of Ibragim Todashev in light of the recent revelations about the FBI agent who killed him.

The ACLU says the mayor of Westfield, who was successfully sued for a First Amendment violation, should pay for the legal costs of the suit out of his own pocket instead of footing the bill to taxpayers.

Retired professor pushes for a bill that would require the state to post all government jobs online.

A thoughtful, critical take on the recent Supreme Judicial Court ruling that police can enter homes without warrants to help animals.

Study finds drone killings by the US government have no impact on the number of attacks by al Qaeda.

Judge backs down and reverses order banning the force-feeding of a Guantanamo Bay detainee.

Friday links (5/23/14)

The government now claims that the Tsarnaevs had help building the bombs used in the Boston Marathon bombing and that the bombs were built outside Tamerlan Tsarnaev's apartment. But that's the exact opposite of what they previously claimed. Yesterday marked one year since the fatal shooting of Ibragim Todashev by the FBI, but we still have more questions than answers.

Man sues the Boston Police Department after they failed to act on his complaint about being falsely arrested for more than a year.

A Fall River police lieutenant who was just arrested for domestic violence is being allowed to retire which means he will be able to collect his full pension. This was his third arrest. The previous two were for drunk driving and public masturbation.

Massachusetts state Senate passes bill to remove licensing requirement for buying pepper spray.

Kade Crockford of the ACLU looks at the new Justice Department policy requiring the FBI to record interrogations and says it's full of loopholes and won't affect the majority of FBI interrogations.

The USA FREEDOM Act, which was supposed to curb NSA surveillance, has been passed by the House, but in watered-down form. Many of the bills original supporters have spoken out against the changes to the bill.