Chief: Mistakes made in Southworth investigation

'Mistakes made' in Southworth case, chief says; EMS to be called for all bodies

jkegley@herald-leader.comJune 18, 2010 

  • Police Chief Ronnie Bastin, flanked by several high-ranking city officials, acknowledged during a news conference Thursday afternoon that officers made several missteps when Umi Southworth, 44, was found behind her home on Meadowthorpe Avenue. The badly beaten woman later died.
  • Updated time line

    6:24 p.m. June 9. Police are dispatched to 1486 Meadowthorpe for a health and welfare check

    6:29 p.m. Officers arrive at 1486 Meadowthorpe.

    7:45 p.m. Umi Southworth is found.

    7:50 p.m. Homicide detectives are notified.

    9:06 p.m. Homicide unit sergeant notifies coroner.

    9:35 p.m. Coroner arrives.

    11:05 p.m. Coroner discovers Southworth is alive.

    11:07 p.m. Emergency medical service requested.

    11:33 p.m. Southworth arrives at University of Kentucky Hospital.

    1:19 p.m. June 10. Southworth dies at UK Hospital

Lexington police Chief Ronnie Bastin admitted officers made mistakes in the Division of Police's response to a case involving a badly beaten woman who investigators thought was dead.

Bastin, flanked by several high-ranking city officials, acknowledged the department's missteps and, in an effort to prevent future errors, announced a change in policy during a news conference Thursday afternoon at police headquarters.

Investigators have been under fire for several days for their response after Umi Southworth, 44, was found behind her home on Meadowthorpe Avenue. Southworth, suffering from head and facial injuries, did not receive medical help for more than three hours after her body was found.

"I'd like to be able to say that ... we've reviewed this situation, our response to 1486 Meadowthorpe (Avenue), and that no mistakes were made, but I can't say that because it's not true," Bastin said. "Mistakes were made."

It was the first time Bastin spoke publicly about the situation — and it was the first clear look at what happened June 9.

Police previously said officers arrived at the scene at 6:21 p.m. and found Southworth "shortly after." On Thursday, Bastin offered a time line for the department's response, including the time officers found Southworth.

According to a report presented during the news conference, officers were sent to Southworth's home at 1486 Meadowthorpe about 6:25 p.m. Officers arrived at 6:29 p.m. for "a health and welfare check." They found Southworth at 7:45 p.m., according to the report. Homicide detectives were called at 7:50, and Sgt. Pat Williams notified the coroner at 9:06 p.m. The coroner arrived at 9:35, the report said.

Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn has said Southworth was found to be alive about 11:05 p.m. Firefighters were contacted within two minutes, according to Thursday's report.

It's not clear why it took more than an hour for the coroner to realize Southworth was alive. Because of the pending homicide investigation, Ginn said he could not say.

Bastin said he did not think the officer who found Southworth checked her pulse.

"I wish I could explain ... what the officer was faced with" when he found Southworth, Bastin said. "I've viewed pictures of the scene, read the reports of the officers, spoken with investigators, and I can understand how a mistake might have been made."

Experts say that when a body is found the scene must be secured, and the coroner should be contacted to determine whether the person is dead. According to state law, the coroner — the only person who can officially declare someone dead — is supposed to be contacted immediately.

Bill Bisceglia, president of the Kentucky Coroners Association and the Bell County coroner, said earlier this week that the majority of the time he is called to scenes, ambulance services — which typically carry medical equipment that checks for vital signs — are present to pronounce death. But if the coroner arrives before the ambulance, it is the coroner's duty to check a body for signs of life.

That did not happen in Southworth's case. EMS was not contacted until the coroner realized Southworth was alive.

Before Thursday's news conference, police would not discuss their policy for situations in which they find a body. However, on Thursday Bastin provided those details and announced policy changes that take effect immediately.

Bastin said the normal practice was to refrain from calling emergency care if it seemed clear that the person was deceased. It was not necessary to call an ambulance because of the possibility of disturbing the crime scene, he said.

"Effective immediately, the Division of Fire shall be requested for all apparent deaths and will assume responsibility for pronouncing death," Bastin said in a memo sent to his bureau commanders.

The Division of Fire will be responsible for contacting the coroner, the memo says.

That change in policy was announced nearly a week after Bastin launched an internal investigation to assess the department's response. It also comes two days after Mayor Jim Newberry announced that a team of professionals had been tapped to assist police with that investigation.

City officials would not disclose the members of that team. They said it consisted of multiple agencies from a variety of disciplines, including "other law enforcement agencies, medical people and policy experts."

The panel that assisted in the internal policy investigation consisted of nine people, including Bastin, Ginn and Newberry.

The other members of that team were: Public Safety Commissioner Tim Bennett; Lexington fire Chief Robert Hendricks; Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Larson; Brian Mattone, first assistant Fayette County attorney; Dr. Joe Richardson, Lexington Division of Fire medical director; and Gary Cordner, chair of the Department of Justice and Safety at Eastern Kentucky University and a member of CALEA, the Lexington police's accrediting agency.

While the policy revisions are effective immediately, Bastin said the changes still must "go through the proper channels to be formally instituted as a permanent policy amendment in the coming days."

An internal personnel and policy investigation is ongoing that could lead to disciplinary action. Currently, all of the responding officers are on full duty, Bastin said.

Larson said the delay in treating Southworth should have no effect on prosecution. A criminal investigation is also ongoing. No arrests have been made.

Bastin said patrols have been increased in the Meadowthorpe area until an arrest is made.

"We're working very diligently and sparing no resources," Bastin said.

To assuage the hundreds of family members, friends and neighbors wondering whether Southworth suffered, officials said Southworth probably was not conscious through the ordeal.

"None of what I've heard would give any indication that the patient suffered for any period of time," Hendricks said.

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