From Staff Reports
AMERICUS, Ga. — A man at the center of a police beating controversy has died.
Americus Police Chief James Green, said that Eddie Bridges, 55, was taken by EMS Sunday to Sumter Regional Hospital Urgent Care, and then transferred to St. Francis Hospital in Columbus. Bridges died Monday. Green said Bridges was picked up by EMS at a residence on U.S. Highway 280 West.
“I have sympathy for the family, but it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to further comment,” Green said Monday afternoon.
Sumter County Coroner Greg Hancock said Bridges’ body was to be sent to the State Crime Lab in Atlanta for autopsy. Hancock said Bridges died in the Columbus hospital around lunchtime Monday.
The details of a physical altercation between an Americus police officer and Bridges, a pedestrian, on April 16, in front of the Goodwill store in the Wheatley Plaza will go before a grand jury later this month or in August to determine if the incident warrants a jury trial, District Attorney Cecilia Cooper told the Times-Recorder recently.
Cooper said the behavior of both the officer and pedestrian will be under scrutiny by the grand jury.
Witnesses’ accounts describe Officer Michael Middleton striking Bridges in the eye with significant force after Bridges threw a can of fruit punch at the officer. Due to conflicting accounts, it is not clear how many times Middleton actually struck Bridges.
According to the police chief, paramedics told Middleton at the scene that the eye injury was beyond the scope of Sumter Regional Hospital’s (SRH) temporary facility and Bridges would have to be transferred to Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, Albany.
Green ordered two of his officers independent of the incident to transport Bridges to Albany. The officers took Bridges by SRH to have the eye checked before they made the trip by patrol car to Albany.
Middleton was on high alert for vagrants the particular day of the incident because store managers in the Plaza had complained to the police department about vagrants hanging around the Plaza and harassing customers.
Middleton found out after the altercation that Bridges wasn’t one of the vagrants. The manager of Goodwill, who was reluctant to speak to the press on April 26, said the Plaza had been having a serious issue with loiterers but Bridges wasn’t one of them.
She said Bridges didn’t drink (alcohol) and he carried out the trash for the stores in the Plaza.
Middleton was placed on administrative leave in the initial days after the altercation while the Americus Police Department conducted an internal investigation into the details of the incident. Green told the Times-Recorder Monday that Middleton has returned to work. The chief said he took disciplinary action on Middleton’s lack of proper radio techniques (calling for backup) and he will deal with the use of force issue after the grand jury review.
Green told the Times-Recorder in late April that it was known by several people “around town” that Bridges was somewhat mentally unstable, but Middleton said he wasn’t familiar with Bridges until the altercation, according to Green.
Green showed photos of Bridges’ eye to the Times-Recorder that were taken immediately after the altercation.
Bridges’ eye was badly swollen and protruding from its socket. The eyeball was about the size of a plum and bloody around the perimeter. Green said he was a little stunned when saw Bridges’ eye.
“Middleton told me he hit him with a lot of force,” said Green.
Green also showed the Times-Recorder photos of Middleton that were taken after the altercation. They showed small cuts and abrasions on Middleton’s neck, fist and an arm. His radio was ripped from his shirt during the incident, the police chief said.
Criminal trespass, aggravated assault and obstruction were the original charges against Bridges.
The Prison & Jail Project (P&JP;) of Americus called for Middleton’s firing.
On Monday, the P&JP; called on the Federal Bureau of Investigation to “step up” its investigation into the beating incident.
The P&JP;’s media release states that “Bridges’s death is being investigated; it appears he may have died from a heart attack .... ”
The release also says, “Since the incident, family members have said that Bridges’ health has deteriorated. He began having an increased number of seizures and was not himself anymore, a family member told the P&JP.;”
In the release, P&JP; Director John Cole Vodicka says, Mr. Bridges’s untimely death brings this matter to a whole new level. We want to know if the senseless beating he received in April might have caused Mr. Bridges’s body to shut down completely 7 weeks later. We continue to demand that the city fire police officer Michael Middleton.”