Kentucky State Police have opened an investigation following the death of a Black man shortly after being in the custody of the Ashland Police Department on March 4.
Clarence Wilkerson, 34, died at the King’s Daughters Medical Center in Ashland, Kentucky, following being detained by officers from the Ashland Police Department. A bystander captured video of Wilkerson being detained by police in the northeastern Kentucky town as he struggled to breathe and hold himself upright.
The video begins with the bystander’s voice, who later identified herself as Bethany Bowman, telling the officers that she wanted their names and badge numbers. Four white police officers are seen standing around Wilkerson, who was sitting on the ground handcuffed near a police cruiser.
Bowman repeatedly states to the officers that the man is in distress and struggling to breathe.
“Dude! He’s literally sitting there passing out, man. He’s passing the f— out… Why? Because when your hands are behind your back like that, it restricts your breathing,” she said. One of the officers is heard telling Wilkerson to stand up as he falls over. None of the officers seem to offer any sort of aid to Wilkerson or call for an ambulance.
Bowman could be heard saying, “Dude! He’s Black, and he’s pale. I can see he’s pale.”
One of the officers is heard sarcastically saying to the woman “I apologize for catching a criminal,” to which she replied, “I think you just have a hard-on for him” and brought up quotas.
Finally, the officers assisted Wilkerson in standing up and put him in the back of one of the police cruisers. Wilkerson is seen bent over and barely able to walk as he is led to the vehicle. Bowman asked the police officers if Wilkerson was going to receive any kind of medical treatment and again noted he was Black, yet she could see that he was pale and “pasty” as the officers casually stood around.
An officer is heard finally telling Wilkerson that they were taking him to the hospital. After several minutes, the cruiser finally leaves after one officer identifies himself as Sean McCormick.
It is unclear what happened before the video began recording, but according to KSP spokesperson Shane Goodall, Ashland Police Officers said that they were patrolling the area when they “visually observed” Wilkerson, who they said had warrants out for his arrest.
Goodall said that Wilkerson ran when he saw the police and ran behind a camper before getting stuck in a fence.
Police then detained Wilkerson “with no issues at all” before Wilkerson complained about “medical issues” before being taken to the King’s Daughters Medical Center, where officials said he was pronounced dead at 12:47 p.m.
“We were asking for medical attention, he was asking for medical attention, he was asking for compassion, and he was denied and mocked for it,” Bowman said. “They refused to radio to a medic. … The last words I heard before they closed the door on Clarence was a muffled and raspy ‘I can’t breathe.'”
According to his family, Wilkerson had an enlarged heart and was on disability, which forced him to give up playing semi-pro football for a team in Carter County.
Court records show that Wilkerson received three years probation after he was charged with simple possession. He was also charged with public intoxication in 2017 and second-degree fleeing on foot, for which he had a warrant.
Wilkerson’s big brother, La Juan Wilkerson, told The Daily Independent that his brother was the type of person who would help anyone who was in need. He was also the father of two.
“If you needed shoes, well there goes one of them. If you needed both of them, there goes both of them. If need socks, too, here, why not?” he said. “That’s the type of person he was. Come around, fix stuff, he doesn’t even live at the house. He wasn’t disrespectful, not a troublemaker.”
La Juan added that his brother was wanted for a misdemeanor. “We’re going to let the facts speak for themselves here,” he said. “It was a misdemeanor — he wasn’t out there robbing or killing anybody.”
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump shared the video on social media and noted the lack of concern from the police on the scene even as Wilkerson struggled to breathe.
“GRAPHIC LANGUAGE. Clarence Wilkerson died shortly after Ashland (KY) Police Dept. officers restrained him. His very visible need of aid NOR a concerned bystander’s warnings of Wilkerson’s health condition was enough to stop officers from restraining him!”
Crump also called on the police to release the bodycam footage. The medical examiner ruled that Wilkerson’s death was “possibly related to preexisting medical ailments” and “not due to a traumatic event.”
His mother, Sherri Ford, said that one of her son’s children asked her if her father died at the hospital. “One asked me if their daddy died at the hospital,” said Ford. “I told them he did — I didn’t want to say he could’ve died in the back of a cop car.”