Federal lawsuit filed in Winchester drowning that happened as police stood watching

WARNING: The following video contains strong language and footage some viewers may find disturbing.

A federal lawsuit seeking unspecified damages has been filed in the June 4 death in Winchester, Tennessee, of an Illinois man who slipped beneath the surface of a Tims Ford Lake tributary at the end of a police pursuit and drowned just feet from the bank as officers watched and took no action.

The chase started in Decherd, Tennessee, and ended minutes later in the neighboring city of Winchester.

On June 4, 24-year-old Johnny Alexander "J.J." Baldwin led Decherd police officers on a chase into Winchester after they tried to stop him for a traffic violation, officials said. Baldwin drove onto a dead-end road, jumped out of his car, fled into some nearby trees and ended up in Boiling Fork Creek.

In the suit filed Sept. 17 in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, Baldwin's mother, Melissa E. George, accuses the city of Winchester and Winchester police Sgt. James Cody Bishop of violating her son's civil rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments.

The Fourth Amendment provides protections against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government and the 14th Amendment, which initially granted citizenship to former slaves, guarantees equal protection to U.S. citizens under the law from deprivation of life, liberty or property without due process of law.

George seeks court costs and "compensatory damages as determined by the jury," the suit states.

George - represented in Tennessee by David Randolph Smith & Associates in Nashville along with Arlington Heights, Illinois-attorney George Sachs - says the city and its officer are responsible for the outcome of the "preventable drowning death of her son, who died as government officials stood by, watching, despite Mr. Baldwin's repeated, audible cries of: 'help me.'

"Defendant Sergeant James Cody Bishop prevented another officer from rescuing Mr. Baldwin. The city failed to train its officers in basic water safety techniques and failed to provide officers with essential life-saving equipment," the federal complaint states. The suit also alleges violations of the Winchester Police Department's own policy on police pursuits.

George and the Baldwin family in Illinois could not be reached Tuesday for comment, but Christopher Smith, one of the family's attorneys, commented by email.

"There are many unanswered questions about Johnny's death and the police failure to attempt a rescue or otherwise lend assistance to Johnny as he drowned before their very eyes," Smith said via email on Tuesday. "It is these unanswered questions that are one of the primary reasons that the litigation has been filed in federal court against the city of Winchester and their police officers."

On Tuesday, Winchester police Chief Richard Lewis said the city has received the suit but he declined to comment, deferring to the attorneys representing Winchester and Bishop.

Chattanooga legal firm Robinson, Smith and Wells is representing Winchester, and Nashville-based Ferrar & Bates is representing Bishop, the chief said.

"I can't comment on the merits of the case," Winchester's attorney Ron Wells said Tuesday, "but we do intend to file our answer in the time allowed by the rules."

Bishop's attorneys in Nashville also declined to comment on the case on Tuesday, and officials there said an answer is forthcoming. An answer to a federal complaint must be filed within 21 days of the suit being served.

In the days immediately following the drowning in June, Chief Lewis said Bishop can't swim - a detail also noted in the lawsuit - and he said the other Winchester officer was too small and light to attempt the rescue in what the police chief described as deep water with unknown potential hazards.

Lewis at that time said that his officers were not trained in water rescue, they don't have rescue equipment and the officers were on an embankment in an "overgrown wooded area" at 1:30 a.m. when the area "was pitch black with no lights ... "

Lewis said in June that there was no way for officers to know why Baldwin was fleeing, what his "thought process" was or whether he would struggle with officers in the water, according to his statement.

"Once the individual went under the water and did not surface, they [police] called for an ambulance and rescue squad," Lewis states.

(READ MORE: Winchester officer resigns, says police face 'crusade against us' in Facebook video)

Bishop's body cam footage was made available to the Baldwin family and to the Times Free Press following the drowning, and in it the tragic scene unfolds. The suit also describes the video.

The video appears to show officers standing just feet away from the edge of the bank suggesting Baldwin get himself out of the water and then debating whether to come to his aid.

Over several disturbing minutes, Baldwin treads water as officers on the bank talk to him, urge him to swim to the bank and Bishop warns the other officer, Tristan Delacruz, not to enter the water to attempt a rescue.

As officers stand on the bank, a suggestion is made by one of the officers that Baldwin is purposely appearing to drown.

As the video continues, Baldwin can be seen going under the water for the last time, and officers can be heard calling for rescuers to come to the scene.

The suit filed by George contends Winchester police violated their own pursuit policy in picking up the chase as Baldwin entered town from Decherd and continuing it onto the road that dead-ended near Boiling Fork Creek.

"The stated basis for pursuing Mr. Baldwin was the false assertion that his vehicle had a broken taillight. Even if that were true, which it was not, Mr. Baldwin would be guilty of a traffic offense," the suit states, citing a portion of the the department's pursuit policy that states, "'Traffic Offenses will constitute an automatic termination of the pursuit,'" and that "'[a] suspect's actions to evade pursuit, such as erratic driving, speeding, or unwillingness to stop, shall be considered minor offenses in evaluating whether to continue or terminate a pursuit. The felony crime of evading arrest is not to be considered a violent felony.'"

(READ MORE: Police officers shot at during gun range training in Winchester, Tennessee)

The suit additionally cites other policy provisions stating that a pursuit "should generally be terminated when the subject's actions appear to be motivated merely by a desire to evade apprehension absent some further facts justifying continuation of the pursuit,'" the suit states of the city policy.

"Mr. Baldwin's behavior and actions fit squarely within this provision. He was not violent; was not traveling at a high rate of speed; was suspected, at least initially, of only a minor traffic offense; and desired solely to avoid apprehension," the suit states. "This constellation of factors should have resulted in a termination of the pursuit, according to the city's own policy."

The suit also contends when Baldwin "submitted" to police and sought help from police he fell under the provisions of the Fourth Amendment.

"Johnny Baldwin's action in swimming towards the shore and repeatedly yelling 'help me' and 'I'm drowning' are evidence of his submission to the official authority of the officers," the suit states. "When defendant Bishop failed to provide any life-saving assistance at all to the drowning and helpless Mr. Baldwin, who was seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, he violated Mr. Baldwin's constitutional rights.

"When defendant Bishop took the further affirmative steps of repeatedly cutting off rescue aid from Officer Delacruz, he further violated Mr. Baldwin's constitutional rights," the suit states.

The suit asserts that Winchester's police department is liable because it had failed to train officers in water rescue scenarios despite proximity to Tims Ford Lake.

Winchester officers also lacked life-saving water rescue equipment in their vehicles, the suit states.

"Had any such equipment been provided to the officers on scene, Mr. Baldwin's death could have been avoided," the suit states.

In the days following Baldwin's death, 12th Judicial District Attorney General Mike Taylor said he believed the officers did nothing wrong and that he had the impression that police on the scene thought Baldwin could swim and make it to the bank where they could get him out of the water.

"From what I have seen - I've seen the video just like you have - I can't say that based on what I'd seen of the case that there was wrongdoing by the police department," Taylor said in June, speaking to any potential for a criminal offense related to police actions.

On Tuesday, Smith, said Baldwin had traveled to Winchester to see his aunt and while there "met a lady who he was starting to see on a social basis. Baldwin was unfamiliar with Winchester but his aunt and new acquaintance were able to direct him as needed, he said.

"He had been down to visit in Winchester several times during the last three months before his death," Smith said. The trip just before his death was to visit his aunt and "new girlfriend," he said.

Baldwin's mother said her son was a "lovable, funny, friendly, outgoing and happy person," according to Smith.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

Upcoming Events