India Cummings wrongful death lawsuit enters discovery phase

Sep 13, 2018

As the lawsuit for the death of India Cummings enters the discovery phase, more details are expected to become public about what a state Commission of Correction report calls a "homicide due to medical neglect."

Cummings' family is suing Erie County, its Sheriff and Holding Center, and Lackawanna Police after the Commission's Medical Review Board, which investigates all inmate deaths in New York, found the 27-year-old Lackawanna woman would not have died had she received "adequate and appropriate" care and treatment by law enforcement and mental health officials "from the beginning of her incarceration." WBFO's Marian Hetherly took a deeper look into how her story began.

"911. What's your emergency?"

The state's report says it all began about 1:20 p.m. on Feb. 1, 2016: a mental health call to Lackawanna Emergency Medical Services for an unconscious person. Lackawanna Police also responded to 62 Knowlton Avenue to assist.

"When you have a total stranger, it's a very difficult situation to know what's causing them to act the way they're acting," Lackawanna Police Chief James Michel told WBFO.

The report says Cummings ran out the front door of the home - hands waving - carjacked a passing driver, then fled with police in pursuit. The vehicle she was driving struck a school bus, then another vehicle, before officers stopped her and used a baton to break the passenger-side window to get her to exit.

Police removed Cummings from the vehicle, but she would not submit to being handcuffed, so police forced her to the ground, before they took her into custody - kicking at officers.

"After reviewing all of the initial reports, I believe the officers did a very good job in putting a stop to the incident and taking Ms. Cummings into custody," Michel said.

Michel said Cummings remained uncooperative in her jail cell, awaiting her 4 p.m. arraignment.

"From what I understand, there were claims made that she had a broken arm while she was in our custody," he said. "I can tell you that I personally went back to the cell block to try and talk to her. There were no signs of any wincing or pain, so I have no clue when this alleged broken arm may have occurred."

Michel said there also was no evidence of any other injury. How would he characterize Cummings' mental state at the time?

"She was refusing to communicate with us," Michel said. "Same sort of symptoms that you would see if she was impaired with drugs."        

After Cummings' arraignment, she was taken to the Erie County Holding Center on $15,000 bail.

Holding Center deputies reported they were with Cummings at Erie County Medical Center to have her "evaluated for a possible broken bone" overnight Feb. 2. However, there are no drug charges against Cummings on the initial police reports shared with WBFO.

The state found that "given Cummings' erratic behavior at the scene and during her arrest, and based on a call for emergency medical care that was made on her behalf for altered mental status, (she) should have been transported to a hospital for evaluation prior to incarceration."

Aducci recommends any police department in Erie County that needs a second opinion handling a mental health call request one of her Crisis Intervention Team clinicians.

However, Michel said the arraigning judge did not recommend any testing and the state report made no recommendations for Lackawanna Police.

"Police officers under the 941 law - which is under the New York State Mental Hygiene Law - they actually have to see someone actively trying to harm themselves or others and that person have some type of evidence of a mental health issue to be able to do that transport," Crisis Services Program Coordinator Kristen Aducci told WBFO.

She coordinates CIT training in the county and says, although police receive some mental health training, state law gives clinicians much broader criteria for determining next steps for a suspect - voluntary or involuntary.

"There have been times where departments have called us out to their lockup before that person's been arraigned and we've evaluated them and determined what to do with that person next. If they meet that criteria, then we collaborate with the law enforcement agency to get them to the hospital," Aducci said. "If it's post-arraignment - meaning they've been arraigned - it's really up to the departments what they would want to do with that individual at that point."

Aducci said a hospital should be look at as an emergency.

"They need immediate intervention. Most of the time they don't," she said. "Most of the time what they need to being able to be steered into some type of treatment or supportive setting. We have plenty of places in Erie County to take people now."

Aducci said 14 percent of law enforcement across Erie County have received CIT mental health training. Those officers are from 11 police departments: the Erie County Sheriff's Department, Buffalo, Amherst, Cheektowaga (46 percent of officers trained), West Seneca, Orchard Park (63 percent), Hamburg, Evans, the City of Tonawanda (76 percent), Town of Tonawanda and Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority Transit Police.

Aducci and Michel said Lackawanna Police have been talking about training some of its 49 police officers in CIT, perhaps this fall.

On Monday, police and elected officials announced a $1.65 million federal grant to double the number of officers trained in handling suspects experiencing a mental health crisis over five years. Officials said about 450 officers have been trained in CIT to date, and they want to expand the number of departments trained to 15 in Erie County.

Officials on Monday announce a $1.65 million federal grant to double the number of CIT-trained officers over five years.
Credit Eileen Buckley / WBFO News

Even though the state's report says the Cummings case began as a mental health call, County Executive Mark Poloncarz told WBFO the training would not have been helpful.

"I'm not an expert on this. I do know that Ms. Cummings was under the influence of a drug and had committed a crime, where she had actually carjacked a vehicle. CIT training is generally for individuals who are in a high-stress situation and not committed a crime," Poloncarz said. "The Cummings matter is totally different because police did not arrive on scene - in my understanding - until she had carjacked the  vehicle from an individual and crashed it into other vehicles, so I'm not certain if CIT training would even apply."

Also on Monday, County Central Police Services Commissioner James Jancewicz told WBFO that all dispatchers, 911 call-takers and staffers at the county jail have been trained in CIT.

"So an individual that enters the criminal justice system from the beginning to end may encounter one or several individuals, in different rolls, that are CIT trained," Jancewicz said.

He also said this year's class of 70 police recruits will be the first to receive 32 hours of CIT classroom training.

WBFO's Eleen Buckley contributed to this story.