How Ronald Given died is a mystery no more.
Given was at St. Anthony’s hospital in Shawnee waiting for a mental health treatment bed in January of 2019 to become available when he began hallucinating, allegedly pushed a police officer and was taken to jail. Seven hours later, the 43-year-old citizen of the Kiowa Tribe lay lifeless on the cement floor of a jail cell.
For four years, Pottawatomie County officials hid the circumstances of those seven hours that led to Given’s death. New details came to light in January with the court-ordered release of a jail video that captured a six-minute altercation in which detention officers slammed Given to the ground and climbed on top of him, rendering Given unconscious.
The State Bureau of Investigation’s 300-page findings released to Oklahoma Watch reveal even more. Medical records, police reports, statements from first responders and interviews with jailers describe a fight between Given and his cellmate, questionable methods jailers used to force Given to the ground while he was handcuffed and an accusation by one jailer that Given was shocked with a Taser.
The state Board of Education on Thursday placed a new set of expectations on Tulsa Public Schools as part of its heightened monitoring of the district.
A state medical examiner ruled Given’s 2019 death a homicide, determining that he died of an irregular heartbeat caused by the struggle with jailers.
No one has been charged in Given’s death but the video release prompted county prosecutor Adam Panter to reopen the case.
What remains uncertain is whether Panter will hold anyone accountable for Given’s death. Panter, who took office in October, is reviewing the evidence against a backdrop of lawsuits and a federal investigation into the state’s care of Oklahomans in crisis.
Given’s aunt Eva Kopaddy presses on with a lawsuit implicating the county, jail staff and a police officer in her nephew’s death. Federal officials are investigating the state for its reliance on law enforcement to respond to mental health emergencies. A class action lawsuit against Oklahoma Department of Mental Health officials alleges more than 100 Oklahomans are languishing in jails awaiting court-ordered treatment. City and county officials statewide are grappling with how to fund care for incarcerated Oklahomans.
Most law enforcement officers respond daily to mental health emergencies, yet specialized training to help people in crisis remains voluntary. About 10% of officers statewide have been trained, according to a 2021 review.
Despite the lethal flaws in these practices, the state continues to rely on law enforcement to respond and jails to house Oklahomans in crisis like Ronald Given.
The Fight With His Cellmate
In separate interviews with investigators conducted six months after his death, jailers described Given as unstable, erratic and paranoid when he arrived at the Pottawatomie County jail after midnight on Jan. 9.
As he was being booked, Given struggled to answer questions about his physical and mental state. He told jail staff that he had enemies in the jail but refused to say who because he “might want to see them,” according to one jailer’s written account. Another jailer suspected Given was under the influence of drugs or alcohol because he was sweating, fidgeting and belching. A hospital toxicology report was positive for cannabinoids.
Shawnee police warned jailers that Given was combative. One jailer told investigators that police provided him a medical release from the hospital where Given was awaiting treatment that said Given needed to be monitored for his safety and the safety of others.
After he was fingerprinted, evaluated and showered, Given was locked in a cell by himself for monitoring. About 3:30 a.m., jailers moved Given to a cell he would share with Taylor Duncan, who was arrested a month earlier.
Within three minutes, officers radioed for help. Given had accused Duncan of wanting to kill him and attacked Duncan, hitting his head and biting his arm, according to statements from jailers and Duncan. Duncan told investigators he fought back, punching Given in the face four or five times and pinning Given against the cell wall until jailers arrived.
“Given did not need to be in the facility because he had some serious mental issues going on,” Duncan told investigators.
No video of the fight between inmates exists because there are no cameras in those cells, the jail’s attorney said.
Panter, the district attorney, said he plans to talk to the medical examiner to determine whether injuries to Given’s face are attributable to the fight with Duncan.
A jail sergeant accompanied Given to the hospital hours later. She told OSBI that the jail’s investigator directed her to exclude bruises and swelling on Given’s face from her written report. The jail investigator was not interviewed by state agents.
Detention officers moved Given to an empty cell near the front of the jail where it would be easier for staff to keep an eye on him.
Given lay on a cement bench for more than two hours before he began yelling, stripping off his clothes and tampering with the locks, according to video and statements from jailers.
Video footage shows Cpl. Edward Bonar II enter the cell and attempt to trip Given. As they fell backward, Bonar grabbed Given, slamming him to the cement floor and initiating the six-minute struggle.
Jailers pinned and handcuffed Given, pulled him up and escorted him to a smaller cell. As he continued to struggle, the officers again forced Given to the floor.
Accounts of the second takedown differ. In interviews with investigators and written accounts, some jailers said Given or one of the officers holding him tripped, causing them to fall. Others describe an officer kneeing the back of Given’s leg or intentionally tripping him.
Jailers were unsure if Given ever hit his head during one of the takedowns, according to reports. One jailer told investigators that Given was bleeding from his mouth possibly from when “he went to the floor” or hit his head on the cement while he was resisting.
One of the first responders who transported Given from the jail to the hospital wrote in a report that jailers told her Given “suddenly collapsed to the floor hitting his head and going into cardiac arrest.”
The medical examiner’s eight findings included only one mention of Given’s head, a bruise.
The bureau’s 300-page report opens with a half-page summary of investigators’ findings. There is no mention of the first takedown. Investigators briefly describe the second, writing that Given “fell to the ground.”
A sergeant who was working in the jail and was not part of the altercation told investigators that a mandatory training held about a week after the struggle taught jailers not to leg sweep handcuffed inmates.
Less than a minute before Given lost consciousness, Sgt. Alexander Barnett brought a stun gun into the cell where four jailers pinned Given face down on the floor, video shows.
Five officers who struggled with Given told investigators that Barnett pressed the stun gun into Given’s back and threatened to shock him if he kept resisting.
Four of those officers, including Barnett, said the stun gun was never discharged.
Bonar, the jail’s floor supervisor, told investigators that Barnett “tased Given several times.”
Given lost consciousness and one of the officers asked if Given was still breathing, jailers told investigators. Bonar said he pressed his fingers to Given’s neck and could not find a pulse. A jail nurse and detention officers performed CPR on Given until first responders arrived.
In a written account of the struggle submitted to the jail the same day, Bonar did not specify whether Given was shocked with the stun gun.
Bonar told investigators about the shocks six months after Given’s death. By then, Bonar had been fired from the jail. His last day at work was two days after Given died. Bonar did not respond to interview requests.
Barnett left his job at the jail the same month that Given died, according to a state investigator’s notes. The notes do not indicate whether he was fired. Barnett began working as an aircraft mechanic at Tinker Air Force Base the same month. When reached by phone, Barnett declined to comment on the incident.
The other three detention officers who struggled with Given — Vincent Ngateeson, Michael Gonzalez and Patrick Briggs — no longer work at the jail.
When asked what training was provided to the detention officers and whether any jailers were disciplined in connection with the altercation, jail staff and the jail’s attorney refused to answer.
The medical examiner ruled that Given died from cardiac arrhythmia, which can result from stun gun discharges a 2008 Canadian Medical Association study found. But there were no marks on Given to indicate a stun gun had been used, according to the medical examiner’s report.
A diagram of Given’s injuries in the medical examiner’s report noted a patch on Given’s lower back with the date of the altercation. The examiner removed the patch and found no underlying sores, according to the report.
After speaking with one of the state investigators and reviewing the findings, Panter said there is no evidence that Given was shocked with a Taser.
The jail failed to report Given’s death or his injuries to the Oklahoma State Health Department, in violation of Oklahoma law, according to emails from the health department.
‘He Didn’t Belong in a Jail’
After reviewing the findings, Panter told Oklahoma Watch he was unsure whether he would file charges. While serious charges such as murder have no statute of limitations, less severe crimes such as assault and battery do. Panter said those deadlines narrow his options for prosecution.
Questions linger about which actions led to Given’s death, who was responsible and whether the force used by jailers was justified.
Panter said he is certain of one thing: Given never should have been in jail.
On the morning of Jan. 8, 2019, at a Tractor Supply in Shawnee, Given took a shopping cart and the basket from a wheelchair and began beating them against store windows while yelling that someone was trying to kill him. A cashier told investigators that she thought he was on drugs or had a mental health issue. Another said he was “clearly out of his mind.”
After Given began hitting the windows with a sledgehammer, one of the employees wrapped his arms around Given from behind, pinning Given’s arms down, which allowed another employee to take the sledgehammer, they told investigators. Given never threatened or tried to harm the employees, they said.
When police arrived, Given was on the floor with the employee holding him down. Two officers handcuffed Given, placed him in the back of one of five patrol cars that responded and took him to an emergency room for a mental health evaluation, according to police reports.
Medical staff determined that Given needed mental health care but all of the state’s treatment beds were full, police reports show. Given was not under arrest at that time, but police continued to detain him invoking an emergency order after determining that Given’s mental state made him a danger to himself or others. At about midnight, two different police officers took over supervising Given. Officer Jake Duggan wrote in a report that Given was pulling at his back and said he was performing surgery on himself.
Given walked toward the door of the hospital room and told police he was leaving. Then Given pushed Duggan’s shoulder, according to police reports. Duggan arrested Given and took him to jail for allegedly assaulting an officer.
There is no video of Given’s arrest or the alleged assault because no officers had their body cameras activated, according to an investigator’s notes. An attorney representing three of the police officers involved told a state investigator he would set up an interview with his clients but never did, according to the investigator’s notes. Investigators never interviewed Shawnee police officers.
Jeffery Pierce, who led Oklahoma City Police Department’s mental health unit from 2013 until he retired in 2021, said police have become the default response for a plethora of social issues they were never intended to be involved in.
People struggling with mental illness should be treated, rather than incarcerated, Terri White, CEO of Mental Health Association Oklahoma, said in an email.
Last year, mental health crises landed Shannon Hanchett and Kathryn Milano in the Cleveland County jail. Hanchett, a Norman mother, and Milano, a Noble grandmother, died in December awaiting mental health evaluations.
“In the United States — and in particular, in Oklahoma — we have a long history of denying people the necessary mental health care in favor of a jail cell,” White said. “That can end in that individual’s death, as evidenced in many cases — including Ronald Gene Given and recently Shannon Hatchett, Norman bakery owner, longstanding mental health advocate, and friend.”
In 2021, Gabriel Yalartai died by suicide in a cell in Oklahoma County jail’s mental health unit.
Bennie Edwards and Daniel Hobbs never made it to jail. Both were fatally shot by Oklahoma City police while in the throes of a crisis.
In Given’s case, moving him from a hospital to jail was the wrong call, Pierce said. Given could have been restrained in a hospital bed using padded cuffs, he said. He could have been sedated by hospital staff or handcuffed by police. Instead, he was killed.
“This whole case is more of a condemnation of our lack of mental health resources in this state because the reality is that he didn’t belong in a jail at that time,” Panter said. “But there just wasn’t anything else for him at that point.”
Whitney Bryen is an investigative reporter at Oklahoma Watch covering vulnerable populations. Her recent investigations focus on mental health and substance abuse, criminal justice, domestic violence and nursing homes. Contact her at (405) 201-6057 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @SoonerReporter.