MSP investigates death of woman in Harper Woods police custody

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published June 19, 2020

 The Michigan State Police is investigating the death of Priscilla Slater, who died while in the custody of the Harper Woods Department of Public Safety.

The Michigan State Police is investigating the death of Priscilla Slater, who died while in the custody of the Harper Woods Department of Public Safety.

Photo provided by Fieger Law

HARPER WOODS — The Michigan State Police are investigating the death of a Harper Woods woman who was found unresponsive June 10 while in the custody of the Harper Woods Department of Public Safety.

The Harper Woods Department of Public Safety said that Priscilla Slater, 38, was discovered unresponsive after being taken into custody June 9. The department said that personnel found her in distress at approximately 12:35 p.m., and medical assistance was immediately administered. A St. John Hospital physician pronounced Slater dead at 12:45 p.m., according to department officials.

“The Harper Woods Department of Public Safety immediately requested an investigation by the Michigan State Police upon discovering Priscilla Slater had died while in custody on June 10, 2020,” Harper Woods Director of Public Safety Vincent Smith wrote in an email. “The MSP swiftly responded, which is important because the well-being of detainees is of the highest priority.”

Harper Woods police and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office said they would not disclose details regarding Slater’s arrest.

Slater’s body was transported to the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office to determine the cause of death. The investigation was handed over to the MSP to ensure the integrity of the case.

“We were contacted by the Harper Woods Department of Public Safety about an in-custody death, and we took over the investigation immediately,” said Lt. Mike Shaw, of the MSP. “It will take a little time to get the investigation done; we are waiting on the medical examiner’s report, and then it will be handed over to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office.”

Smith wanted to assure the public that he and the rest of the department are treating the investigation with the utmost urgency.

“I offer my condolences to Ms. Slater’s family,” he stated. “MSP investigators, members of command and myself notified Ms. Slater’s family of the incident in order to provide whatever information that may have been available at the time. MSP investigators are diligently investigating this incident with the complete cooperation of the department. The cause of death will not be known until the results of the autopsy and toxicology report are completed. While the investigation is ongoing, department personnel have been placed on leave; these personnel include four civilian aides and two supervisors.”

Several residents voiced their apprehension regarding Slater’s death at a previously scheduled Black Lives Matter protest June 12. Cynthis Douglas, president of the Grosse Pointes-Harper Woods NAACP, said her organization is very concerned regarding the circumstances of Slater’s death while in police custody.

“We want to offer condolences to the family, of course,” she said. “That particular demonstration was not to protest Ms. Slater’s passing. That was already scheduled prior to the passing of Ms. Slater and was hosted by Harper Woods High School alumni. We were only there as participants.”

The organization later released a statement via email.

“The GPHW NAACP awaits the results of the Michigan State Police investigation, as well as the findings of the medical examiner,” the statement reads. “We will continue to monitor the situation and keep our membership aware of developments.”

At the demonstration, tensions ran high as several of the city’s administrators were attempting to talk to those assembled. Valerie Kindle, a Harper Woods city councilwoman and the second vice president of the Grosse Pointes-Harper Woods NAACP, said she and the other administrators were there to speak to those concerned over Slater’s death and were met by some with hostility.

She added that Mayor Kenneth Poynter and his wife have been the target of threats of violence.

“He has received threats to him and his wife,” said Kindle. “They’re not even at their home right now. It was an unfortunate incident because emotions were running high. Everyone lost their cool. I was pelted with plastic bottles, and we had water thrown on us. I hope level heads will prevail until the investigation is completed. My deepest condolences to the family, because any loss of life is tragic. That’s what we were trying to communicate that night.”

During the confrontation, Mayor Kenneth Poynter’s wife, Margaret, allegedly tore up a sign being held by one of the protesters, which caused the situation to become more heated.

“The mayor’s wife apologized for what she did,” said Kindle. “The sign did not say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ as some other people have said, it said ‘f--- the police.’ She regrets tearing up the sign, and I think things just got out of hand. Calm heads needed to prevail, and they didn’t that day.”

Kindle said she is hoping the public will stay calm and wait for the conclusion of the MSP investigation before casting blame for Slater’s death.

“My only message to the community is what we’ve been saying: We have nothing to go on yet,” she said. “We are waiting on the state police to complete their investigation. Then we will know where everything lies, and then we can make an informed statement. Right now, it’s all speculation.”

Slater’s family is being represented by attorney Geoffrey Fieger. C & G Newspapers reached out to Fieger’s office for comment but received no response.