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 Two Years After A Death, Is New Britain Police Lockup Any Better?

By DON STACOM,
The Hartford Courant
12:53 AM EDT, October 30, 2011

NEW BRITAIN — A man's suicide in a police cellblock two years ago drove his two daughters to sue the city, alleging that police failed to properly keep watch on him or monitor his cell.

After months of negotiations last fall, the city paid $200,000 to the survivors of William Rankin, who hanged himself on his 50th birthday. The same year, police administrators also published a revised version of their 15-page rulebook on how to manage the department's 11-cell jail.

But some police officers and a retired supervisor say the cell monitoring system is still as badly flawed as it was the night Rankin died.

Security cameras have the same blind spots they've had for years, they say, while bars on the cell doors still easily accommodate homemade nooses.

The freshly updated rulebook directs officers to check in frequently with a computerized Watchman system when they monitor the cellblock — but by some accounts, that equipment hasn't functioned in at least two years.

"It's a tragedy waiting to happen," said a retired police supervisor who declined to use his name because he is still close to many officers in the department.

"It wasn't built right. I think this could happen again," said Crystal Rankin, 27, the victim's daughter.

Capt. Dennis Beatty, who is responsible for the jail, is out with an injury, and Mayor Timothy Stewart could not be reached for comment.

Police Chief William Gagliardi said that the city will have state-of-the art cells in the new headquarters it is building downtown.

"There will be no bars, there will be plexiglass," Gagliardi said in a voicemail. "We'll have videotape and audio recordings, we'll be able to see what going on in better ways. All of the finest modern techniques for holding prisoners in a safe environment are being incorporated into the new building."

William Rankin was having a tough time when his 50th birthday arrived on April 22, 2009. He'd been divorced, had lost his job in the parts department of a Newington car dealership, and was still enduring daily pain from a long-ago motorcycle accident, according to another relative who said she suspected he suffered from depression.

"Wednesday is my birthday. I'm 50 years old and I'm going to get drunk really bad," William Rankin wrote in a note that police recovered sometime later.

Police records give this account of what happened: On the afternoon of his birthday, Rankin and a girlfriend were arrested after an argument and scuffle at their Clinic Drive apartment. Lt. Thomas Steck had Rankin placed in Cell 3 in the jail at the Columbus Boulevard police headquarters.

Steck and Officer William Krysiak ran all police operations from the front desk that night, periodically watching Rankin and other prisoners with video cameras. Also, they occasionally walked back to check on Rankin and others in the cellblock. Krysiak reported seeing that Rankin was all right at 9:20 p.m. But when civilian employee Matthew Reynolds arrived to take over supervision of the cellblock, he found Rankin hanging from a T-shirt he'd tied to bars on his cell door.

"Rankin was seated with his back against the front wall bars in a way which made it difficult to see the ligature affixed to his next. This portion of [the] cell has additional metal mesh which impedes the view," Steck wrote in a report.

The police administration ultimately concluded that Steck should have done more to ensure steady supervision. But privately, several current and former officers contend that commanders have been warned over the years that the monitoring equipment is antiquated, saying cameras are positioned in a way that misses entire sections of some cells, and the desk monitors don't always provide clear, steady images.

"We were worried about this every night," the retired supervisor said this week. "What happened when Steck was on could have happened to anybody."

Under the Freedom of Information law, The Courant requested the police department's jail policy. The city attorney's office provided a copy dated July 2005, four years before Rankin died. After being pressed further, the office contacted Gagliardi and produced a version that had been revised June 15, 2010, nine months after the hanging.

But if Rankin's death changed how police run the cellblock, there's no sign of it in those documents, which are nearly identical.

The new policy still directs officers to use the Watchman handheld devices to record their observations of prisoners and to note when they hand out medications. It also specifies that officers be trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation. But officers say the Watchman system went out of service years ago, and that CPR certifications of some of the patrol staff are being allowed to lapse even though any officer could be called in during a busy shift to temporarily oversee the cells.

Gagliardi said police reviewed policies and training after Rankin's suicide. He said the new headquarters will ensure the best possible jail conditions.

"Our [current] jail cells were constructed back in the '60s. The technology at that time was using bars, etc., but changing that system was very, very expensive," he said.

Crystal Rankin said Thursday that she hopes the new police headquarters prevents any future deaths in the jail. The retired supervisor said it shouldn't take that long.

"This was a bad system back years ago," he said.

 


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