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Post date: December 13 2017

Attorney General's Special Investigations And Prosecutions Unit Releases Report On The Death Of Wardel Davis

News from Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman

December 13, 2017

Attorney General’s Press Office / 212-416-8060
Twitter: @AGSchneiderman


AG Report Urges Systemic Reforms at Buffalo Police Department, Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office

Today, New York Attorney General’s Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit (SIPU) released a comprehensive report on its investigation into the death of Wardel Davis, III in Buffalo in February 2017, pursuant to Executive Order No. 147. The investigation, led by Chief Deputy Attorney General and Chief of the Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit Alvin Bragg, did not find sufficient evidence to substantiate criminal charges against the officers involved. 

The report, available here, details SIPU’s extensive and comprehensive investigation into the encounter between Mr. Davis and Buffalo Police Department (BPD) officers on the evening of February 7, 2017.

“The death of Wardel Davis was a tragedy, and we send our deepest condolences to his family and loved ones,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “Our extensive investigation uncovered policies in real need of reform by the Buffalo Police Department and the Erie County Medical Examiner. These systemic issues must be swiftly addressed. As in all the cases we investigate under the executive order, we remain committed to a fully independent review of the facts and an exhaustive and transparent accounting of our investigation.”

SIPU’s investigation included, among other steps: (1) An extensive review of surveillance video footage of the area; (2) Interviews with all available witnesses from the scene including EMTs, Buffalo Fire Department personnel, ambulance paramedics, and Buffalo Police Department officers; (3) Medical examinations by both the Erie County Medical Examiner and an independent pathologist retained by the AG’s Office; (4) The review of over 1,800 pages of Mr. Davis’ medical records; (5) The review of Mr. Davis’ communications before his interaction with the BPD; (6) 911 dispatch recordings and GPS data.

As part of the investigation, SIPU conducted multiple canvasses of the neighborhood to identify additional witnesses and relevant surveillance camera footage. SIPU also followed all leads from Mr. Davis’ family and girlfriend, as well as all leads from Mr. Davis’ two cell phones, in order to identify possible witnesses. These efforts are detailed in Appendix A of the report.

The Erie County Medical Examiner conducted an autopsy and reported the findings to SIPU. Due to concerns raised by the Medical Examiner’s statements to investigators, SIPU also retained an independent pathologist to conduct a separate autopsy. The Medical Examiner and the independent expert separately reached similar conclusions that Mr. Davis died of an acute asthma attack, either exacerbated by the physical altercation or triggered by stress or physical exertion.

According to medical records, Mr. Davis suffered from asthma from a young age. Mr. Davis’ grandparents and girlfriend indicated that on and before February 7th, Mr. Davis had been sick and had complained of chest pain and persistent cough. In text messages and phone calls with a witness approximately half an hour before Mr. Davis’ interaction with the officers, he indicated that he was having trouble breathing.

As the report states, “In order to sustain a criminal charge, the evidentiary burden is on the State to: (a) prove that one or both officers committed a crime and (b) disprove that such conduct was justified as self-defense or force reasonably necessary to effect an arrest. The evidence is insufficient to meet this burden and, therefore, no criminal charges are warranted.”

Under the executive order, OAG may offer recommendations for systemic reform arising from the investigation. Accordingly, OAG recommends that:

  • The Buffalo Police Department take steps to become accredited by the NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services. SIPU found BPD’s investigation to be lacking in the areas of evidence collection and documentation.
  • The Buffalo Police Department outfit its officers with body-worn cameras and its vehicles with dashboard cameras. Indisputably, videotaped evidence would have greatly facilitated SIPU’s investigation.   
  • The Erie County Medical Examiner adopt policies consistent with National Association of Medical Examiners guidelines to ensure that its investigations are conducted in a professional manner. This recommendation comes as a result of the Medical Examiner’s insistence on speaking with the officers before making a scientific conclusion about cause and manner of death; even more worrisome, the Medical Examiner stated to investigators that if the officers did not meet with her, she would deem the cause of death to be “positional asphyxia.” The independent expert concluded that Mr. Davis’ death was in fact not caused by positional asphyxia.

The report was produced as part of the Attorney General’s role as the state’s special prosecutor. In July 2015, Governor Cuomo signed Executive Order No. 147, appointing the Attorney General to that role to oversee investigations into incidents where unarmed civilians die during interactions with police, or incidents where there is significant question as to whether the civilian was armed and dangerous. As part of the Attorney General office’s commitment to transparency, in cases in which it’s determined that charges are not warranted, the Attorney General’s office releases a comprehensive report detailing the findings and available evidence from its investigation.