By EMILY SHAPIRO, ABC News
(DECHERD, Tenn.) — The family of a 24-year-old who drowned while police looked on, instead of coming to his aid, are outraged after seeing the events unfold on body camera video.
Officers with the police department in Decherd, Tennessee, right outside of Winchester, were in a car pursuit in the early morning hours of June 4, trying to pull over Johnny Baldwin for a minor traffic violation, Winchester Police Chief Richard Lewis told ABC News on Wednesday.
As Baldwin drove down a dead end, Winchester police joined Decherd officers in the pursuit at 1:43 a.m., according to a Winchester Police incident report.
Baldwin then fled on foot, and as the Winchester officers searched the area, they heard something in the water nearby, the report said.
Officers reached the edge of Tims Ford Lake and saw Baldwin halfway across, the report said.
“I gave him orders to stop and swim back towards us, which he did,” an officer said in the report.
Baldwin was about 10 feet from the lake’s bank when “he stopped coming closer and just floated there for a second,” the officer wrote.
Baldwin would “go under water and pop back up several times but would never proceed to the edge where we could get him.” Then he “went under water one last time and never came back up,” the officer wrote.
“He ends up drowning, which is an extremely sad situation,” Lewis told ABC News. “We have released our body camera and we have caught absolute hell for it.”
The body camera video shows Baldwin swimming and an officer calling him “dumb” for jumping in.
“Don’t go in there with him, he’s going to pull you in,” one officer said, according to ABC Nashville affiliate WKRN.
“He’s doing it on purpose,” an officer said.
Two Winchester police officers were at the scene at the lake as well as two Decherd police officers, Lewis said. Decherd was the lead agency for the pursuit, Lewis said.
Decherd’s police chief did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment.
The body camera video “sent straight anger through me, because I know what kind of person that he is,” Baldwin’s cousin, Destiny Baldwin, told ABC News. “They treated him very, very unfairly.”
She says she thinks the officers at the scene of his death should be fired, lose their badges and face charges.
“It’s a part of your job to protect and serve the community. It just seemed like in that case with JJ that wasn’t it. It was more of, ‘Do I know this person? Is he armed? He’s faking it.’ Stuff that a cop on duty shouldn’t ask,” she said.
Baldwin, who went by JJ, “was always there whenever you needed something,” she said. “Very happy and outgoing person, and very loving person.”
Chief Lewis defended the actions of his two officers at the scene and said they “made the right decision.”
One of those officers could not swim, Lewis told ABC News, and the second officer was taking off his gear to get in, but the first Winchester officer stopped him.
“We are not trained in water rescue — we do not possess the gear to do that,” Lewis said. “You’ve got to have a flotation device tied off somewhere to the bank where they can rescue you if something happens.”
The rescue squad and dive team were en route before Baldwin drowned, the incident report said.
Lewis also noted that it was the middle of the night and pitch-black on the shore of the lake, with the exception of their flashlights.
The lake is in a wooded, overgrown area, where it’s unclear how deep the water is. Officers were also concerned whether Baldwin would engage in a struggle with police considering he had already fled, according to Lewis.
“That’s the reason we didn’t jump in,” Lewis said. “If my officer got in there and got tied up with him [and got pulled under,] it’s just a bad situation.”
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