On a morning in Shawnee in January 2019, Ronald Gene Given was in a panicked frenzy.
A member of the Kiowa Tribe who friends nicknamed “Happy,” Given had walked into a Tractor Supply Co. and told employees someone was trying to kill him. He grabbed a shopping cart and started to ram it into the shop’s windows and pulled clothing off racks.
The 42-year old told employees he was trying to make a commotion and urged them to call the police. He told them his life was in danger, according to a police incident report.
Police took Given from the store to St. Anthony Hospital Shawnee Hospital for an evaluation, where health care workers cleared him medically but deemed him in need of emergency detention at a state behavioral health center. But every facility in Oklahoma was full, so Given ended up in the county jail.
Eight days later he was dead.
For months, activists, and Given’s family and friends have been seeking answers about what happened to him at the jail.
But the jail won’t release any information about Given’s death. The case highlights how detention facilities use an exemption for some law enforcement records in the Oklahoma Open Records Act to shield video of prisoner deaths from public view.
The Frontier requested video and incident reports last year, but the jail refused to provide any records other than Given’s booking and release reports, claiming all others were exempt from the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
Eva Given Kopaddy, Given’s aunt, thinks about her nephew every day. She wants to know what happened to him after he left the hospital.
“It’s killing me. It’s literally killing me,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by that it is not on my mind.”
Given Kopaddy filed a federal lawsuit in December that claims surveillance footage shows a detention officer at the jail restrained Given by placing a knee on his neck, causing his death. That video has not been released as part of filings in the civil lawsuit.
Ronald Kelly, an attorney representing Given Kopaddy, told The Frontier that Pottawatomie County District Attorney Allan Grubb allowed him to review a portion of the video in Grubb’s office. Kelly said he has not been provided a copy of the footage. Grubb did not respond to a request for comment.
Detention facilities often try to shield surveillance footage from release by citing an exemption in the Oklahoma Open Records act they argue makes disclosure of some law enforcement records optional, said Spencer Bryan, a Tulsa attorney with experience in civil jail litigation. But Bryan disagrees with the assessment that those records are confidential and believes the public needs access to them to make an informed decision on whether jails are being operated properly.
In 2015, Terral Ellis died in the Ottawa County Jail from sepsis and pneumonia, The Frontier reported. Ellis’ family was left questioning what happened to Ellis at the facility, as medical and jail records showed conflicting accounts. A Frontier reporter’s request to the jail for records related to Ellis’ death were denied because of the exemption in the Open Records Act.
The footage didn’t come out until January 2020 as part of a federal civil lawsuit from Ellis’ family. It showed that for more than 20 hours Ellis begged jail staff for medical care. Jail staff ignored and at times mocked the 26-year old.
“These are issues that clearly are of public importance. They’re of public interest. Any time you have someone die in custody, the public has a right to know what’s happening and what’s going on,” Bryan said.
Police officers took Given to the hospital and waited with him for a state mental health bed to open for about 12 hours before arresting him after he allegedly shoved an officer in the shoulder, records show.
Given was at the Pottawatomie County Justice Center for less than 10 hours before jailers released him on a medical bond and transported him to a hospital, records show. He died in an Oklahoma City hospital a week later on Jan. 16, 2019. The jail did not report his injuries or death to the state health department’s jail inspection division, despite a state law that requires facilities to report serious inmate injuries requiring transfer to an outside medical facility within one working day.
A report from the state’s medical examiner found Given died from organ failure caused by cardiac arrhythmia from struggling as officers restrained him. The medical examiner ruled the death as a homicide.
A spokeswoman for the Shawnee Police Department last year told The Frontier that the department was told there was a struggle between Given and jail staff.
Grubb didn’t bring criminal charges against the officers involved in Given’s detention.
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation opened an inquiry into Given’s death in 2019 and passed the findings along to Grubb. Grubb in 2020 refused to release the investigation’s findings after a spokesman for his office initially offered to let a Frontier reporter review the document.The Frontier has requested records from Grubb’s office on his decision not to charge officers.
Grubb told News9 that he penned a letter to FBI saying it should investigate Given’s death and that the OSBI investigation found the death “should be ruled justifiable.”
Given’s death sparked protests in Shawnee last summer, as a group of people belonging to several Oklahoma tribes gathered in front of the Pottawatomie County district attorney’s office asking Grubb to file criminal charges and release records related to Given’s death.
On Tuesday, the Oklahoma State Conference of the NAACP released a statement calling for Grubb to file criminal charges against officers and for the release of jail video and records related to use of force.
“The current care provided to incarcerated individuals suffering from mental health issues is substandard. It has led to these preventable deaths in our local jails and prisons and prioritizes cost-cutting over patient health,” the release said.
Given’s family filed the civil suit in late December in the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma against the jail’s trust, the jail’s administrator and several unnamed detention officers.
The jail’s administrator, Breonna Thompson, did not respond to multiple email and phone messages from The Frontier. Oklahoma City attorney Wellon Poe, who’s representing Pottawatomie County, declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
The lawsuit claims that jail staff believed Given to be intoxicated when he arrived at the facility and staff reported they placed him in a solitary cell after he resisted detention officers.
Surveillance footage shows that once placed in the cell, Given tried to remove his own clothing, the lawsuit claims. A jail employee entered the cell and attempted to subdue Given by striking him, causing the man to fall back and hit the back of his head on the floor, the suit claims.
Two officers then entered the cell and attempted to restrain Given’s arms, and another employee placed his knee onto Given’s neck, according to the lawsuit.
“The neck restraint remained until Mr. Given was rendered unconscious,” the suit says. “Mr. Given lay on the cell floor motionless and after he showed no signs of breathing.”
Jail staff took turns trying to revive Given and removed him from the cell, the lawsuit says. An ambulance took Given to a hospital, but he never regained consciousness, according to the suit.
“I just want them exposed,” Kopaddy Given said of the county jail. “It’s just horrible. They’re covering it up.”