Five before Midnight

This site is dedicated to the continuous oversight of the Riverside(CA)Police Department, which was formerly overseen by the state attorney general. This blog will hopefully play that role being free of City Hall's micromanagement.
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Location: RiverCity, Inland Empire

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Rabb: Many questions, fewer answers

CPRA Watch: 31 days with no response

The Community Police Review Commission met on Aug. 23 to approve a public report that it hoped would provide answers in relation to the incustody death of Terry Rabb, a 35-year-old African-American man who suffered from diabetes.

Instead, the often heated meeting raised more questions than answers especially surrounding the use of force tactics used by Officers Camillo Bonome and John Garcia, to restrain Rabb so that he could be medically evaluated and treated by two Riverside City Fire Department employees. Soon after Bonome attempted to apply a carotid restraint on Rabb and both officers had handcuffed him, he stopped breathing and went into cardiac arrest. He died after being transported to a nearby hospital. The Riverside County Sheriff/Coroner's office which performed the autopsy stated that Rabb died from his underlying illnesses, with no mention of the chain of events which had preceded it. Still, for several commissioners doubts remained as to whether or not the officers' actions while restraining him played a role in his death.

"I'm really torn on this case," CPRC Chair Les Davidson said, "My heart tells me there were some things done here that were wrong."

Davidson said that CPRC investigator Butch Warnberg had concluded in his investigation that Rabb had died from cardiac arrest after the physical restraint by the police officers.

"That's a pretty strong statement," he said.

What upset Davidson the most, were comments allegedly made by Bonome that he suspected that Rabb was under the influence of an illegal drug, either crack cocaine or PCP even after being informed by the dispatcher who handled the 911 phone call that Rabb was diabetic and suffering from an insulin reaction. These comments were reported to investigators by family members of Rabb, yet the RPD's own detectives apparently failed to question either Bonome or Garcia about these alleged comments during their interviews, even after they had called in Bonome for a second interview, according to the department's own investigative report.

On the other hand, Davidson said that the officers may not have been trained or even obligated to know about Rabb's medical condition.

"Two sides of this, which really pull," an obviously conflicted Davidson said to the commission.

Commissioner Jack Brewer disagreed with Davidson.

He said that the officers had to restrain Rabb because the emergency medical technicians could not do so. In fact, their department has a policy that forbids them from restraining patients, which was why police officers had been dispatched to the scene to assist them. He called the alleged comments made by Bonome, "unfortunate".

Brian Pearcy, a former Los Angeles Police Department officer, said that while it was unfortunate that Bonome made these comments in front of Rabb's family members, he might have done it to raise the consciousness of his partner about the situation. What it might have done was put both officers in a "heightened" mode and state of alertness.

Jim Ward, the only African-American on the nine-member panel, expressed many concerns about the incident, enough to lead him to decide to release a minority report. He said that he had problems with Bonome's assumption that Rabb was not ill, but under the influence of illegal drugs and whether that perception drove his behavior and determined what actions he took.

"The behavior of the officers are more in line with him being on drugs rather than because of his diabetic condition," Ward said.

Commissioner Ric Garcia said that he felt the comments if they were made, escalated the situation. A statement which mirrored that presented by Warnberg in his report.

"This is a very, very tough case", he said.

Even as commissioners disagreed with each other about the significance of the perceptions held by the officers concerning Rabb, all of them expressed frustration with their combined belief that the department's own investigation conducted by its Officer-Involved-Death Team had failed to adequately address the allegations raised about Bonome's alleged comments. In fact, as Pearcy said at one point, the department did not provide any evidence that provided any insight into the officers' state of mind during the entire incident. That shortfall was a source of great frustration to commissioners left with a difficult decision to make about the case. Without knowing the officers' state of mind during the incident, it would be difficult to determine whether the course of action they took was in line with the department's written policy governing the use of force.

Davidson, a former police officer, said that if he had received knowledge that the situation involved a medical emergency, then the last thing he would have been considering in that situation was using lethal force. A typical officer would have been careful in his attempts to restrain an ill person, he said.

"I don't think a chokehold is what should be used," Davidson said.

The "chokehold" is actually a nickname for the carotid restraint. It is a technique which is used by an officer to restrain or subdue an individual by using his arm to apply pressure to a person's neck region in order to temporarily cut off the blood supply which flows through the two carotid arteries and several veins in the neck to and from the brain. The restraint also impacts the vagus nerve and affects its function as well. This action and its combined effect usually renders a person unconscious for a brief period of time. However, in many documented cases where it has been used, the affected person has not regained consciousness and has died.

Use of force options: Pros and Cons

Different law enforcement agencies have different policies regarding its use. Some agencies including the Los Angeles Police Department have banned it (although this agency still uses the "modified" carotid restraint). Others have policies defining it as a lethal force option, one on par with an officer's firearm. Still other agencies including the RPD state in their use of force policies that the carotid restraint is considered a "less lethal" option, or as Bakersfield(CA) Police Department puts it, to have an "injuring" effect not a lethal one.

The agencies and their officers who support the use of the carotid restraint see it as an option bridging what they view as the wide gap between "control holds" and lethal force. Community leaders, human rights organizations, medical personnel and many law enforcement experts view this restraint as dangerous, even lethal and in many cities have asked for it to be banned.

In Riverside, at least three deaths connected with the deployment of the carotid restraint in the mid-1990s led to large settlements and in one case, a jury's verdict.

Derek Hayward: $1.1 million jury's verdict including legal fees

Adam Williamson: $215,000

Hector Islas: $790,000

Still, the deployment of the carotid restraint in the RPD is on the rise if the statistics quoted in a progress report written by former attorney general consultant Joe Brann in 2006 are any indication. Its use by officers has gradually increased during the past several years, even as the use of several other less lethal options including projectiles has decreased during that same period of time. It has not led to any more deaths, but without further data, it is not clear whether or not those who have been on the receiving end of it have not suffered significant injuries as a result.

Any information on the carotid restraint may be academic in this case, because according to the officers' statements, it was attempted but never completed because Rabb had tucked his chin to his chest and his face was pressed into the sofa cushions while Bonome placed his body weight on his back. The coroner's report showed no signs of bruising or other trauma to Rabb's neck region that could indicate that the restraint had been used. Still, the officers' decision to at least attempt it on an ill man disturbed at least one commissioner.

"Did that chokehold, was that the cause that brought Rabb to become deceased," Davidson said, "I think so."

Also challenged and even criticized by several commissioners was the department's use of force policy, which has been amended about a half-dozen times in the past seven years, reflecting the wide-sweeping reforms that have impacted the agency during that time period.

Ward had tough words for what he called the "serious ambiguities" present in that policy. He said its current language placed too much importance on the perception of the officer engaging in it and treated that perception as "infallible". It then required that the officer engage in the same amount of force in a given situation as a "reasonable" person would while adhering to a set legal standard. He believed the different criteria of what level of force to use in a given situation could conflict with one another and that it pretty much defended whatever action the officer took, whatever its consequences.

The department's use of force policy and its implementation drew attention after the shooting of Tyisha Miller in 1998 and become the focus of investigations by both federal and state law enforcement agencies as well as an investigation conducted by a panel of citizens appointed by Mayor Ron Loveridge in 1999. Consequently, it has undergone several revisions and currently includes a provision which states that officers are to recognize the sanctity and value of human life when considering its implementation. Several outside agencies also addressed the placement of the cartotid restraint in the use of force continuem and whether or not, it constituted lethal or less lethal force. Currently, it is considered a less lethal option for an officer to utilize in different situations.

The quality of the investigation received a lionshare of the criticism from the commission which was similar to what happened while it investigated the Summer Lane shooting.

Pearcy said that most of his criticisms would be directed towards the quality of the department's investigation, most notably the omission of any documentation regarding the officers' state of mind. Without it, it would be difficult to definitively state whether or not the use of force that would be in large part based on those perceptions was in violation of departmental policy. Even though the CPRC's investigator had followed up on the allegations regarding Bonome's comments, the department had failed to do so. This left the commission in an unenviable quandary.

"We don't have definitive answers as to why he died," Pearcy said, "We don't. We can't make that jump."

Not surprisingly, Ward had even more harsh comments regarding the department's investigation.

"They know how to do an investigation. They know what questions to ask," Ward said, " There is a clear effort to avoid the kind of questions that we need to make this transparent to the police department and to the public."

These criticisms mirrored those raised regarding the police department's investigation of the Lane shooting in 2004. At that time, commissioners had been critical of the interrogations detectives conducted with individuals, especially Officer Ryan Wilson. Several commissioners said while discussing the drafting of the public report that they believed that the detectives who interviewed Wilson asked him leading questions and assisted him in his interrogation. Those criticism were included in the CPRC's public report on the Lane shooting.

The Lane shooting was ultimately determined to have violated the department's use of force policy by the CPRC, if not the city or the police department. Whether or not the Rabb incident falls in the same category is uncertain at this point in time. What is certain that whatever finding is decided upon by the panel, it will come with an asterisk attached.


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