The Vanguard has a new home, please update your bookmarks to

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Coroner's Report on Taser Victim Answers Few Questions

The official report by Deputy Coroner James Andrade characterized the death of Ricardo Abrahams as accidental. He found no evidence of homicidal intent by the police.

Of course, that was not really a point in question. No one believed that the police deliberately killed a man by taser.

To make matters less clear, the man did not die directly from the taser, but rather suffocated while being restrained by the police. One witness said that Woodland police officers, "dog-piled" the man.

The cause of Abrahams' death was "positional asphyxia." According to a report in the Sacramento Bee this is a condition often that is associated with deaths that occur during restraint by law-enforcement officers.
"There are certain positions that cause you to expire." [Woodland Police Lt. Charlie] Wilts said. "The coroner's report doesn't say that police compressed Mr. Abrahams to death." Wilts said it is easy for those who weren't there to second-guess the officers, but it would be wrong to do so.

"Who am I to say Mr. Abrahams was not acting aggressively toward the officers?" he asked.
A key finding is that he had no drugs or alcohol found in his system that would lead him to be non-responsive. It was simply a matter that he was mentally disturbed.

Abrahams suffered from bouts of mental disturbance and acting on advice from his psychologist he checked himself into the Safe Harbor Crisis House in Woodland after suffering anxiety. He then walked away the next morning. The staff first called his psychologist. His psychologist described him as not dangerous and then the police were called but he became combative.

Police then hit him with batons and fired Taser guns three times in an attempt to subdue him.

Reaction to this report has been mixed. The Bee quotes, Johnny Griffin, a civil rights attorney.
Johnny Griffin III, a well-known civil rights lawyer, is representing Abrahams' parents, Rosemary and Cecil Abrahams of Davis.

He said that while police may have had no homicidal intent, their actions were deliberate.

"They intentionally Taser- ed him multiple times," Griffin said. "They intentionally dog-piled him. It was this intentional conduct that resulted in his death.

"All those facts support our position that the officers' use of force was unwarranted," he said.

Griffin has filed a claim with the city as a precursor to a lawsuit.

"I'm hopeful that city of Woodland will take full responsibility for the officers' conduct and resolve this case without causing the Abrahams family to go through the pain of protracted litigation," he said.
Yolo County Supervisor Matt Rexroad had a very different response on his blog.
"Life is messy. From my point of view it is unlikely that the Abraham family lost anything that can truly be replaced. Will $1 million of taxpayer money bring back their son? No Is it reasonable to assume that their son would have been a huge economic success considering that facts we have from the newspapers? No. The Abrahams have lost something that can't possibly be replaced. The life of their son.

People like the Abraham's attorney will fuel the public debate by pointing to the fact that the officers used their tasers and than officers used force. That seems like a pretty good way to take down a 300 pound man to me.

The Woodland Police Department did act purposefully. They acted in a manner that law enforcement officers do under those circumstances. It is difficult to come to any firm conclusions about their actions if you weren't there to judge the situation. I for one don't think that the taxpayers of Woodland owe the family any large amount of money at all. They may have some costs associated with this incident but it is not a major amount of money and it is not going to un-ring the bell."
While I agree that the Abrahams family lost something far more precious and something that they cannot replace, I respectful disagree with Mr. Rexroad here in terms of the manner in which law enforcement acted here.

First of all, no has suggested that the police intentionally tried to kill Mr. Abrahams. The question is whether they responded to this situation appropriately. That does not change if he had died directly from the taser shots or indirectly after being immobilized from the taser shots and then "dog-piled."

In fact, one might argue that the secondary cause of death being asphyxiation is even more on them because they bear responsibility for his health and well being after immobilizing him with a taser shot.

But even before we get to that point, we still need to ask whether they operated appropriately by firing the taser in the first place. He was not on drugs or alcohol. He was mentally disturbed. They received the call from the treatment center and should have known this. Hence is non-responsiveness should have been apparent. Should they have gone for the taser? Should they have attempted to talk him down for longer. He had a pencil. He was described by his psychologist as not dangerous. He had no criminal record. Why shoot the taser at that point? Why not call in his psychologist or at least place a call there?

I have talked to various law enforcement people on this issue. All of them stressed that they were not there, but they are increasingly concerned with how quickly officers go to solutions like the taser rather than use other tools and resources at their disposal.

Clearly the issue of the use of the taser is one that must be resolved first by the legal process.

Law enforcement officers in my view are responsible for his welfare the second they have him under their control. To what extent did the tasering contribute to this man dying of asphyxiation? To what extent did the act of "dog-piling" contribute? The cause of death may be accidental, that does not mean that officers do not bear responsibility. If subjects in their custody die from asphyxiation at times, why are police officers not trained to avoid those type of positions?

This is a tragic situation made all the worse because it seems it could have been avoided at multiple points in time. The courts will have to determine whether the use of a taser was appropriate. And the courts will have to also determine whether it was reasonable for the police to have foreseen that the position that they put the individual could have caused death.

I think a lot of people remain concerned about the use of the taser in a situation where you have a non-compliant individual who is mentally incapacitated. We will see what the legal system holds in this tragic death.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting