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

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In Winchester, Tennessee, the lack of a helping hand has sparked strong criticism of police actions after a chase that ended in a 24-year-old man's drowning death.

On June 4, Johnny Alexander "J.J." Baldwin led Decherd police officers on a chase into the neighboring town of Winchester after they tried to stop him for a traffic violation, officials said. Baldwin drove onto a dead-end road, jumped out, fled into some nearby trees and then ended up in a tributary of Tims Ford Lake called Boiling Fork Creek, according to police.

Baldwin, who can be seen on police body-worn camera footage treading water just a few yards off the shoreline, vanished and drowned as Decherd and Winchester officers apparently watched from the bank.

Baldwin's family in Warrenville, Illinois, is outraged the officers didn't try to help, and an attorney representing them claims those officers made a decision to let Baldwin drown.

Lance Northcutt, an attorney with GWC Injury Lawyers representing the family and conducting a private investigation into the death, issued a statement that accuses officers of mocking Baldwin as he struggled and called for help.

"The incredibly difficult job of the vast majority of good police officers is made all the more difficult when a bad few flagrantly breach the public's trust," Northcutt said. "Here, a man was helpless and literally begging for his life while police officers calmly ridiculed him as he died."

Attempts to reach the Baldwin family on Thursday were unsuccessful.

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GWC lawyer statement

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Winchester police provided the footage to the family, according to Chief Richard Lewis, and that video shows Winchester police officers talking to Baldwin as he calls for help just a few feet from the shore.

Lewis said the Winchester police sergeant on the scene can't swim, and 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. A police report describes Baldwin as 6 feet, 1 inch tall, weighing around 190 pounds.

On department letterhead, Lewis states in a response sent Wednesday night with a copy of the June 4 police report that his officers are not trained in water rescue, and they don't have rescue equipment. He said 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 ... "

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, Lewis states.

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

Decherd police have not released their body camera footage from the incident, but police Chief Ross Peterson issued a statement describing it.

"It is very tragic and heartbreaking that a young man, Johnny Baldwin, lost his life in a drowning incident that subsequently occurred while fleeing police," Peterson states.

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Chief Ross Peterson statement

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"Mr. Baldwin attempted to swim away from the officers. For some reason he turned to come back towards the officers and unfortunately went under without coming back up.

"A [Winchester] officer did attempt to take off heavy gear to go in after him," Peterson states. "He was stopped by a more seasoned sergeant who advised him not to go because he could be pulled in."

Peterson said about 10 minutes elapsed from the time the chase began until Baldwin vanished under the water. Peterson said he'd met with Baldwin's mother and family "and they advised they will be filing a lawsuit, attorneys from both sides will work on what they need from this point on."

Northcutt shared the video footage in his possession, and it appears to show officers suggesting Baldwin get himself out of the water and then debating whether to come to his aid.

"Get over here dude. Come on, man," one officer tells Baldwin. "He's going to swim all the way across there? Hey, puddin' cup, keep coming."

The man asks for help, and the officer responds, "Well, then swim. Your dumb a— jumped in the river."

Another officer prepares to attempt a rescue, and the first officer says, "Don't go in there with him. He's going to pull you down."

The officer who cautioned against a rescue suggested that Baldwin was purposely appearing to drown.

"He's doing it on purpose, though," the officer said. "That's deep right there. He made it to right here and then purposely went under. That's deep man, you don't need to [be] down there fighting with him under water. No. No."

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.

One of the officers commented, "He was just doing 40 mph ... until he about took me out on Sharp Springs."

Also, one of the officers is heard to say, "I'm too fat and out of shape to get in there" before the group is heard laughing as they help each other climb up the bank.

Northcutt rejected the idea that officers were in fear of their lives in not entering the water to save Baldwin.

"What you hear on the video isn't the voice of fear from a frightened police officer. You hear childish taunting and ridicule. You don't stand idly by and mock a dying man because you are afraid, you do it because you are so unmoored from the person's basic humanity that you don't care enough to act," Northcutt said. "Here, any one of these officers could have done something as simple as picking up a branch and extending it toward this drowning man from the safety of [the] riverbank, but instead, they made the calculated decision to let him die."

The Franklin County towns of Decherd and Winchester share a meandering border and Dinah Shore Boulevard links them not far from Tims Ford Lake.

A Winchester police report describes police there joining Decherd's pursuit near the town border and chasing Baldwin into a neighborhood with dead-end roads. The reporting officer is listed as James Bishop, and Ronnie Wilder is listed as the assigned officer at the top of the report. A "Sgt. King" and "Patrolman Womack" are included in the report's narrative as among those at the scene.

"The vehicle stopped on Baldwin Court at the dead end and a white male driver fled on foot," the report states.

"We searched the area looking for the suspect when I heard something in the water and when I got to the edge of the lake I could see a white male about halfway across the lake," the report states. "I gave him orders to stop and swim back towards us, which he did."

Baldwin stopped about 10 feet from the shoreline "and just floated there for a second," the report continues. "The male then would go under water and pop back up several times but would never proceed to the edge where we could get him.

"Finally the male subject went under water one last time and never came back up," the report states.

Rescue and emergency medical personnel had been called.

The report states that Winchester detectives would continue an investigation, although Lewis on Wednesday said officers were not being investigated and that he stood behind their actions. Baldwin's body will undergo an autopsy, officials said.

Twelfth Judicial District Attorney General Mike Taylor said Thursday that he wants to see the complete police file on the incident and to review autopsy results, but he believes the officers did nothing wrong. Taylor said he had seen video posted online but not an official version from the department.

Taylor, whose office oversees cases in the six-county district that includes Franklin County, said he had the impression that officers on the scene thought Baldwin could swim on in 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.

 

Was there a duty to render aid?

"It's always factually driven. Obviously, a police officer or anybody else would try to help somebody if they could, but what you also have to figure in is the person who might be trying to render aid going to put themselves in as much danger as the person who needs the aid," Taylor said, noting one Winchester officer couldn't swim and the other was small in stature.

"It's a tragic situation any way you look at it," Taylor said. "Once they get me the final report and autopsy, I'll revisit it and look at it again and see if I think there's any further investigation needed. But at this time I can't say that there is."

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

 

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