Family of N.J. man who died in scuffle with officer files civil rights suit

Posted: February 02, 2011

The family of a Waterford Township man who died during a scuffle with police has filed a civil rights lawsuit alleging authorities and civilians caused the man's death while an officer attempted to make an illegal arrest.

Keith Briscoe's parents, Keith Robinson and Virgin Briscoe, allege in the federal lawsuit filed last month that their son was going through his usual routine when he stopped for a soda at the Winslow Township Wawa on May 3. Briscoe was treated for schizophrenia as an outpatient at the nearby Steininger Behavior Care Services.

"It just amazes me that someone can go to a Wawa to get a cup of coffee or something cold to drink and end up dead," said Woodbury lawyer Stanley King, who filed the lawsuit and alleged that Winslow officers are poorly trained in dealing with the mentally ill.

Winslow Officer Sean Richards, a 12-year veteran, was on his way into the Wawa for hot chocolate when he passed Briscoe, 36, and told him he could not remain in front of the business smoking a cigarette and drinking his soda.

Richards told authorities he heard Briscoe ask a passerby for money, but Briscoe's family has insisted that he was always given the money he needed and had no reason to panhandle.

On his way out of the Wawa, Richards confronted Briscoe a second time and attempted to arrest him when Briscoe refused to leave, be handcuffed, or get into Richards' cruiser.

According to the lawsuit, the situation quickly escalated as the Wawa manager ran to assist the officer and held Briscoe's legs while two customers also jumped in to help. All are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

"As Briscoe was lying facedown in the rain, Richards was pressing one knee into the back of Briscoe's head and the other knee into Briscoe's shoulder," the lawsuit said. Other officers responded as well, some coming from nearby Pine Hill and Berlin.

The lawsuit alleges that several officers held Briscoe down, collectively using excessive force as he lay in the prone position.

"Throughout the ordeal Briscoe grunted and screamed," the lawsuit said. "He kept asking the defendant to let him get up, stating that they were hurting him."

Eventually Briscoe lay dead. A medical examiner concluded he died of traumatic asphyxia.

Winslow Township Solicitor Stuart Platt said he could not comment on the lawsuit. Richards did not return a call seeking comment.

In October, Richards pleaded guilty to simple assault and was placed on probation. He was forced to surrender his job and may never hold public office again.

Merchantville lawyer Timothy Quinlan, who represented Richards in the criminal matter, said that had Briscoe just given Richards his name and accepted a summons for loitering, everyone would have gone home that day. Quinlan said that although Richards did not do anything wrong, he felt bad about the death.

"This family just doesn't want to accept his apology," Quinlan said. "They want to hold on to their anger."


Contact staff writer Barbara Boyer at 856-779-3838 or bboyer@phillynews.com.

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