The 41-year-old father of four died at a hospital three days later.
On Monday, his family settled a wrongful-death lawsuit they had filed last year against the city of Charlotte and five officers involved in Easter’s arrest, claiming negligence and constitutional rights violations.
Alex Heroy, an attorney representing the family, declined to disclose the settlement amount, which must be approved by the city council within 60 days. But after three years marked by grief and legal battles, Heroy said the settlement has provided Easter’s family some measure of closure.
“No amount of money will ever bring [Easter] back, and no one deserves to die this way,” Heroy said. “But this allows the family to finally grieve their loved one, move on and celebrate his life.”
The lawsuit followed a wave of backlash that began after Easter’s Jan. 23, 2020, arrest — four months before the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited a national reckoning over race and police conduct. An internal Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department investigation conducted later that year found that the five officers had known Easter ingested drugs, yet failed to give him the proper medical care — a move that violated department procedures.
“Our policy is pretty clear, cut and dry, that if you believe or should know that someone ingested a narcotic, then you should call [medical responders] immediately,” Chief Johnny Jennings said at a news conference in September 2020. “ … If they had followed policy, we would have, at the minimum, given Harold Easter a chance. We have the responsibility to at least give him that chance to survive. And that’s what officers failed to do.”
Police body-camera footage shows officers approaching Easter’s vehicle around 11:40 a.m. on Jan. 23, 2020. As one officer ordered Easter, who was sitting in the driver’s seat, to put his hands up, there was a struggle through the driver-side window. “Don’t eat it! He’s eating it,” the officer said.
The officer said that Easter “was crushing up part of his crack,” and that he’d likely ingested about ⅛ of an ounce.
“We probably got a eight-ball down here,” the officer added.
Easter was then put in handcuffs, and officers retrieved bags they said they suspected were filled with cocaine or crack, the body-cam video shows. According to the lawsuit filed by Easter’s family, the officers noticed the white powder around the man’s lips and tongue. During the arrest and ride to the police station, Easter repeatedly requested water and air — telling officials: “Officer, can I get some air?” and “Officer, can I get hydrated?”
“That happens when you eat cocaine,” the lawsuit claims an officer replied.
By 12:19 p.m., Easter’s legs were shackled to the floor inside the interrogation room, according to the lawsuit. There, he was left by himself, while the symptoms of the drugs in his body soon became apparent, it adds.
Easter yelled and called for help. He again requested water. He talked about a fireworks show for his children. He entered what the lawsuit called “a manic episode.”
“Y’all going to let me die in here,” Easter said at 12:28 p.m., surveillance video showed.
Police entered the room twice: once to give him a cup of water at 12:31 p.m. and then again at 1:14 p.m., eight minutes after Easter had fallen onto the ground and begun convulsing, surveillance footage showed. Shortly after entering the room, one of the officers is heard asking for someone to call emergency service, while another responds that medical help is “already on the way.” Officers then administered two doses of Narcan, which is used to treat opioid overdoses, the lawsuit states. (Narcan, the brand-name drug for naloxone, does not reverse cocaine overdoses.)
The ambulance arrived by 1:21 p.m., the lawsuit stated — Easter then suffered cardiac arrest.
“At the hospital, Mr. Easter was placed on life support but never regained consciousness. He died at age 41,” the suit said.
In September 2020, Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather said Easter’s death was an “abject failure of operating procedure and general standards of custodial care,” the Charlotte Observer reported. Yet, he said, the officers involved couldn’t be criminally charged because there wasn’t enough proof that their failure to get Easter medical treatment earlier caused his death.
The five officers resigned that month, city officials said in an October 2020 news conference.
Easter’s family also blamed the city, arguing in the lawsuit that it is responsible for ensuring officers are adequately trained.
In October 2020, the family organized a rally, in which about 50 people walked through Charlotte carrying banners and shirts emblazoned with Easter’s face, the Charlotte Observer reported.
The image that was chosen: Easter drinking water from a plastic bottle.
Now, the family is “at peace with moving on,” according to Heroy, their attorney — especially since Easter’s death led to some changes. Shortly after Easter died, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department revised its monitoring policy, which required officers to check on people in custody every 15 minutes. Now, officials have to observe them at all times, and the interrogation room’s video feed is continually monitored.
“The family really wanted to make sure something like this never happened to anyone else,” Heroy said. “And the changes police made are an important legacy to [Easter’s] children. He’s protecting them even if he’s not here.”