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Saturday, October 11, 2008

AG's Report Does Not Resolve Woodland Taser Case

The local media, namely the Davis Enterprise and the Woodland Daily Democrat were quick to exonerate the actions of Woodland police officers in the death of former Davis resident Ricardo Abrahams who died of asphyxiation after he was repeatedly tasered.

The family responded yesterday by suggesting along with their attorney that the investigation is flawed.

I will state at the onset that I do not know what happened, however, I think it is premature to conclude that there was no wrongdoing on the part of the police officers.

Deputy Attorney General Davis Lowe wrote:
"We find no criminal conduct on the part of any of the involved officers..."
This is not a surprising finding and based on what little we know of the case, an accurate finding. The fact of the matter is, a criminal finding would have had to have shown that the police officers intended to do harm to this individual. That is a very high standard to meet and one that is not in agreement with the known facts of the incident.

In other words, there is no reason to have suspected that the officers acted in a malicious fashion. That would be the difference between an incident like Rodney King where the police officers were clearly using excessive force in an intentional and malicious matter. However, even in the King case there was no criminal conviction--rightly or wrongly. The King case in that regard represents the norm.

But that is not the end of the story. Criminal conduct is only a small amount of this case. The next question will be whether the police are civilly liable for Mr. Abraham's death. That is a much lower standard and one that it does not appear from media accounts that the AG's office looked into.

Sacramento Attorney Johnny L. Griffin represents the Abrahams' family in a pending wrongful-death suit.

In his statement to the Davis Enterprise, he entertained the possibility that the state's ruling was based on information submitted by the Woodland Police Department.
"If the material submitted by the Police Department is incomplete and/or inaccurate, the attorney general's findings will likewise be flawed... Bottom line, the attorney general's finding can only be as trustworthy as the information provided by the Police Department."
If that is the case, we have no evidence to suggest either way and will have to wait for the trial for that to come out.

What we do know is that based on the information that Woodland Lt. Charlie Wilts provided, an internal investigation concluded that the actions of the officers were "consistent with the department's use-of-force policies."

That leads me to two final observations. In Davis, after a serious of community complaints about a variety of incidents involving the Davis Police Department, the City Council authorized the City Manager to hire an Ombudsman who could investigate such complaints as an impartial and independent arm of the city. The advantage in such a case is that you would have independent eyes investigating police tactics and whether these officers followed proper procedure. The Ombudsman would have audited and reviewed the work down by the Woodland PD's internal investigation. Under some conditions, the Ombudsman himself in such a high profile case would have conducted the investigation.

The point here again is that the AG's office was looking largely (apparently) at criminal conduct, much as the District Attorney's office would have had they not been conflicted out. That is different than an internal review.

Unfortunately Woodland does not have an Ombudsman or any kind of independent investigator to do this work. Across the country, Internal Affairs units notoriously are reluctant to criticize and sustain citizen complaints on the use of force. In our investigation from two years in our Police Oversight Series, we found that nationwide over 90% of all use-of-force complaints were unfounded by IADs but a much larger percentage resulted in civil damages for the victim or the victim's family.

That is where this incident is headed--civil court. The family's only recourse is for this case to be adjudicated which is a very timely and very expensive endeavor. The Buzayan family's incident occurred in June of 2005, their case is still pending in Federal Court over three years and large amounts of money later. Most individuals simply cannot afford those kinds of expenses and they end up either settling, dropping their case, or in some circumstances representing themselves. As Davis recognized two years ago, there are better ways to do this and Woodland should look into some sort of independent review process.

Finally, the Woodland PD's finding is that the officers' actions were "consistent with the department's use-of-force polices." If that is true, they ought to take this opportunity to review those policies. Experts I have spoken too, while unfamiliar with the specifics of this case, suggest that the situation with a mentally impaired individual who is largely unresponsive to police commands is a particularly difficult situation for any officer to handle. It is difficult for them to assess what is wrong or how much danger the individual represents to himself or the community.

Several officers I have spoken with off the record privately suggested that they were uncomfortable with this case while stressing that they did not know the particulars. It is their experience that often, but not always, officers are too eager to use tools such as the taser and too reluctant to try to find lower use-of-force alternatives. Better and improve training could potentially have prevented this situation even if the officers did indeed adhere to department policy.

In summary, this is not the end of the story, there will be several additional chapters to be written. The family will move forward with their suit and more of the facts will likely come out along the way.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting