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Family wants to know: What did he do wrong?

Keith Briscoe's death in a struggle with police was a twist ending to a story his family says never should have begun.

Keith Briscoe, background, was mentally ill when he died in a struggle with police. His sister, Sunny Brisco, foreground, said he wasn't violent.
(Curt Hudson / For the Daily News)
Keith Briscoe, background, was mentally ill when he died in a struggle with police. His sister, Sunny Brisco, foreground, said he wasn't violent. (Curt Hudson / For the Daily News)Read more

Keith Briscoe's death in a struggle with police was a twist ending to a story his family says never should have begun.

The 36-year-old, schizophrenic man lived a simple life of routines since he fell ill more than a decade ago.

He worked part time in his father's carpentry business and, after therapy sessions at a Winslow Township mental-health center, he would walk to the Wawa a few blocks away for a soda and a cigarette.

"He wasn't violent. He didn't have outbursts and he was never in trouble with the law," said his sister, Sunny Briscoe. "He just kept to himself and did his own thing."

Starting at noon today, Sunny Briscoe and about 100 others will take part in a "Justice for Keith Briscoe" rally by walking back and forth between Steininger Behavioral Care Services and the Wawa on Cross-Keys Road. On May 3, Briscoe died during a violent struggle with five police officers and three civilians outside the Wawa after being accused of loitering.

The Camden County Prosecutor's Office is investigating the incident and awaiting the results of a toxicology test to determine the cause and manner of Briscoe's death.

Briscoe's cousin, Gordon Sunkett, said he helped organize today's rally because he doesn't sense enough outrage from the community and found others were quick to blame Briscoe for his own death.

"When things don't affect people personally, they can be callous without knowing all the details," said Sunkett, a Winslow resident. "This could have been anyone's son, dead at a convenience store where thousands of people go because he was smoking a cigarette outside."

Moments before his death, Briscoe had ignored Winslow Township Police Officer Sean Richards' order to leave the area, authorities said, and resisted when the hulking officer tried to handcuff him. Jason Laughlin, a spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, said Briscoe would have been charged with a disorderly persons offense if he had been brought in.

Even if the arrest is improper, Richards' attorney, Tim Quinlan, said the law is "crystal clear" that a suspect can't resist. It was Briscoe, Quinlan said, who escalated the situation.

"The easiest thing would have been for him to move on when Richards said, 'Move on,' " Quinlan said. "Then there doesn't have to be violence and there doesn't have to be tragedy."

Before the violence began, though, Briscoe had only been accused of loitering and Richards was the only one making that accusation. The Camden County Prosecutor's Office said no Wawa employees or customers had complained about Briscoe that morning.

Quinlan said Briscoe might have been panhandling and partially blocking the doorway. But Stanley King, an attorney representing Briscoe's family, said Briscoe had his own money and accusations that he was panhandling were "self-serving" for the officers.

King said Wawa employees were familiar with Briscoe. He believes evidence will show that Briscoe was a customer at the store that morning, further muddling the notion that he was "loitering" outside. There were no surveillance videos of the incident, but he believes there is footage from the store that shows Briscoe was a customer.

"He didn't do anything wrong. He was a paying customer," King said recently at Sunny Briscoe's home. "Bottom line is Richards looks at him and thinks, 'This man doesn't belong here.' "

As of Wednesday, the Wawa had no signs affixed to the store that prohibit loitering and spokeswoman Lori Bruce said the company had no specific loitering policies for its stores.

"This is a tragic situation, and we will continue to assist authorities in any way we can," she said in a statement.

"Not belonging" somewhere is one of many vague interpretations authority figures have applied to loitering laws for centuries, said David Kairys, a constitutional law professor at Temple University.

"It's one of the oldest common laws we have and it's always been problematic," Kairys said. "It's always been criticized for being used against powerless, feared, and disliked people. It gives police the vehicle to use a law against individuals they have a problem with."

If Briscoe were actually a paying customer, as King believes, Kairys said he would have an "implied invitation" to be outside the store.

Whatever his reasoning, Richards told Briscoe to leave before the officer went inside to get coffee. When he came out, Briscoe was still there and the problems began.

Authorities said that Briscoe and Richards had words with one another but they haven't specified what was said or if the officer realized at any point that Briscoe was mentally ill. Winslow Township is one of many departments in South Jersey that have received Crisis Intervention Team management (CIT) training to help officers recognize and deal with the mentally ill.

Quinlan believes the demands on police officers are often unrealistic.

"How is a cop supposed to know, on the first encounter, that someone has a medical problem?" Quinlan asked. "It's very easy for someone to say a cop should have done this and a cop should have done that."

Quinlan said Richards is on administrative leave and eager for "closure."

Sunny Briscoe said her family can accept that Keith is no longer with them, but they can't shake the anger and frustration over how it happened.

"The more you think about it, the more it makes no sense," she said. "How could a person die because they were outside a store smoking a cigarette?"