Two Harper Woods officers fired as a result of Priscilla Slater investigation

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published August 20, 2020

 Two Harper Woods Department of Public Safety officers were fired as a result of the Michigan State Police’s investigation into the death of Priscilla Slater, pictured, while she was in the department’s custody.

Two Harper Woods Department of Public Safety officers were fired as a result of the Michigan State Police’s investigation into the death of Priscilla Slater, pictured, while she was in the department’s custody.

File photo provided by Fieger Law

HARPER WOODS — On Aug. 19, the city of Harper Woods released a statement saying that the investigation into the death of Harper Woods resident Priscilla Slater, 38, while she was in police custody has resulted in the immediate termination of two members of the Harper Woods Department of Public Safety.

Slater had been taken into custody by the Harper Woods Department of Public Safety June 9. The department said that personnel found her unresponsive at approximately 12:35 p.m., and medical assistance was immediately administered. An Ascension St. John Hospital physician pronounced Slater dead at 12:45 p.m., according to department officials.

The department handed over the investigation to the Michigan State Police and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. Neither office has released any official findings of its investigation as of Aug. 19.

“Unfortunately, our city has discovered that members of its police department attempted to conceal and manipulate evidence in the ‘in custody death investigation’ of Ms. Priscilla Slater,” acting Harper Woods City Manager John Szymanski said in a prepared statement. “As a result, the city has immediately terminated the following police officers: Deputy Chief John Vorgitch, Patrol Officer Michael Pineau.”

Szymanski did not elaborate on the nature of the alleged evidence tampering and noted that the Michigan State Police investigation is ongoing. John Gillooly, the attorney representing the city of Harper Woods in the matter of Slater’s death, said the dismissal occurred because Vorgitch requested that Pineau alter a report related to Slater’s death.

“Immediately following the death of Ms. Slater, the city of Harper Woods told the public and its citizens that it was going to perform a full and complete investigation, and the city has held true to this promise,” said Gillooly. “An external investigation is underway by the Michigan State Police and an internal investigation began where police administrators (in the Harper Woods Department of Public Safety) received information that the deputy chief requested that an officer remove information from a report that may or may not have been relevant to Ms. Slater’s death. The investigation showed this information to be accurate and the city of Harper Woods will not tolerate such actions. It is not up to a police officer to determine what may or may not be relevant. That is the decision of investigators, the prosecuting attorney and a jury.”

Gillooly added that while firing members of the Public Safety Department is a major step, it was one the city believed was unavoidable.

“It is always difficult to fire someone, especially during a pandemic, but the Harper Woods Department of Public Safety had no choice,” he said. “We expect more from our police officers, and we will not settle for anything but pure professionalism and hard work by each member of the department.”

The Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office took custody of Slater’s body to determine a cause of death, but no findings had been published as of Aug. 19. Gillooly said that the city is eagerly awaiting the results of both the state police investigation and the findings of the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“The state police investigation is continuing, and results have not been released regarding an autopsy and toxicology results,” Gillooly said. “Tests are taking much longer these days, and we are very interested in receiving the results of this investigation into the cause of and manner of death of Ms. Slater.”

The office of Harper Woods Director of Public Safety Vincent Smith said he had no comment on the matter at this time.

The death of Slater caused heightened emotions among many in the local community, many of whom compared the incident to recent cases of abuse and overreach among law enforcement departments across the country.