West Tennessee Group Demands Answers Surrounding Death Of Sterling Higgins

Jun 6, 2019

Obion County Law Enforcement Complex
Credit Obion County Sheriff's Office / obioncountysheriff.com

A group of west Tennessee residents is demanding answers regarding the death of a man arrested and brought to a local jail in March.

The group of concerned citizens says it’s been 10 weeks and details are scant regarding the nature of 37-year-old Sterling Higgins’ interactions with the police and how he died. Community member Amber Freeman said she feels there was an injustice done and wants answers.

The group is calling for the release of video surveillance and an autopsy report. They are holding a demonstration Thursday at 5 p.m. on East Reelfoot and South First Street in Union City.

The Obion County Sheriff’s Office said on March 25, Higgins arrived with Union City Police to the Obion County Law Enforcement Complex. Police said he was uncooperative and assaulted staff members. He was subdued and staff called for an ambulance for medical assistance. Higgins was later pronounced dead at the Baptist Memorial Hospital in Union City. There were no apparent injuries to Higgins or the officers, according to the sheriff's office. According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Higgins was arrested on a count of Criminal Trespassing.

Freeman referred to comments by a family member of Higgins to WPSD about Higgins being handcuffed and that an officer laid on top of him. “If he was handcuffed, how could he have really been that combative?” asked Freeman. “And then subdued, by definition basically means that they overpowered him, overtook him.” She said there’s a lot of questions and she wants to see the footage of what took place.

When asked about Higgins general nature, Freeman said relatives describe him as easy-going, laid back and non confrontational. She said the family doesn’t believe he would have been combative. But, even if he was, she suggested there were other ways to get him to comply, such as a taser.

District Attorney General Tommy Thomas would serve as prosecutor should there be any charges against law enforcement. He said he is waiting on the autopsy and toxicology report, which could take months. He said he did not have any preliminary reports. “It’s always a tragic event when someone dies and, here in police custody. It’s an issue that we’re concerned with and we’re awaiting results from toxicology and autopsy,” Thomas said. The West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center has not responded to a request for comment.

Thomas said he hasn’t seen video footage because the TBI is still investigating the case. TBI said the investigation is “active and ongoing” and waiting on autopsy results.

He said no members from the group or family members have contacted him, but he’d be happy to sit down and answer any questions they have.

Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Brian Osborne referred inquiries to the TBI, since that agency is handling the investigation. He said the release of any information involving the case would likely come through the TBI or Thomas’ office.

The citizen group says there is a long-standing distrust between local law enforcement and members of the Union City African American community. They say the agencies have an obligation to answer questions. Chief Deputy Osborne said, “I can assure you that we do everything we can do to make sure that we treat everybody fairly.” He underscored that this is a philosophy within the department and also asked media to be fair to all parties. Union City Police Chief Perry Barfield was not immediately available for comment.

Freeman said incidents like Higgins have been seen in the news reports across the country. “Almost every day, if you turn on the news or look on Facebook, there is some sort of video of - usually physical - but I’m going to say verbal and physical abuse by police officers against, oftentimes, minorities - whether they are blacks or Hispanics. And Union City, Tennessee, is no different,” she said, adding that she has personally witnessed or experienced harassment to and attacks on individuals in the local black community.

She said she feels this issue gets swept under the rug. “And so now, it’s gone to a completely different level, which has resulted in someone - that someone being Sterling - losing his life. We’re basically just coming together to say this is not okay. It has never been okay, but now look what has occured. Someone has died at the hands of law enforcement here in small town Union City. We want to know why. We want to know answers. We want the individuals involved to be reprimanded and we don’t want this to happen again,” she said.