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.
"The horror of that moment," the King went on, "I shall never, never forget." "You will though," the Queen said, "if you don't make a memorandum of it." --Lewis Carroll


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Location: RiverCity, Inland Empire

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Canary in the Mine: The law suits

Two more law suits have been filed involving fatal officer-involved shootings by Riverside Police Department officers, according to an article in the Press Enterprise today. The news is not really surprising because claims for damages had already been filed by both plaintiffs against the city in relation to those shootings.

Law suits involving Riverside Police Department officer-involved shootings filed in U.S. District Court

The families of both Lee Deante Brown and Douglas Steven Cloud have initiated civil litigation in federal court, alleging that the civil rights of both men were violated when police officers shot and killed them in two separate incidents about six months apart last year. Last year, the police department, which employs 389 officers, had three fatal officer-involved shootings, all involving men who were at least initially unarmed. Two may have later been armed by police officers while struggling with them, according to the police department's accounts.

The latest law suits were both filed by the Cochran firm. They join three other law suits filed in various courts involving the officer-involved deaths of Summer Marie Lane who was shot in December 2004 and Terry Rabb who died in police custody in October 2005.


Dunn said witnesses have given conflicting accounts about the events leading up to the fatal confrontation. He said even if accounts that Brown had acted as if he were mentally unstable are true, police did not have to shoot him.

"You don't kill someone for acting strangely," Dunn said.

Brown was the second Black man to die in police custody who had been acting "strangely" or "erratically" since October 2005.

Rabb had been suffering from severe hypoglycemic shock which affected his behavior and impaired his ability to understand what was going on around him. Even when two police officers issued verbal commands, he was unable to respond. And one of Rabb's friends reported that one of the officers had made statements expressing his opinion that Rabb was actually under the influence of an illegal substance, naming PCP and crack cocaine. Rabb tested negative for both substances after his death.

That officer then pushed Rabb face down on the sofa and while leaning on his back, tried to perform a carotid restraint while Rabb's face was shoved into the sofa cushions. After the police officers and a paramedic had handcuffed Rabb and sat him down in front of the couch, Rabb stopped breathing and went into cardiac arrest without ever regaining consciousness. Two law suits have been filed by family members in his case, one in federal court, the other in Riverside County Superior Court.

The Community Police Review Commission investigated the Rabb incident and like the police department, determined that it was within policy. However, unlike the police department, CPRC investigator Butch Warnberg of the Baker Street Group stated in his report that Rabb's death had died of a heart attack after being restrained by the officers. The autopsy report submitted by the Riverside County Sheriff-Coroner's office mentioned a litany of medical illnesses suffered by Rabb but didn't include any language regarding actions taken by the police officers or even that Rabb had exerted himself in a struggle, according to discussions held by the CPRC on the Rabb incident.

The CPRC also recommended in its public report on Rabb as well as its earlier one on the shooting death of Todd Argow that the police department create and implement training on interacting with those who were mentally or medically ill. It also sent a recommendation to its policy and procedures committee to examine the department's use of force policy and determine whether or not any recommendations needed to be issued to change the procedures for escalating and deescalating the use of force against mentally ill individuals. However, that committee has only met once in the last 19 months, due to among other reasons repeated failures to reach a quorum so that process has been delayed.

What happened leading up to and including the Brown shooting depends on whose perspective is taken as truth, given that the attorney who filed the law suit is right when he said the accounts contradicted each other whether it's civilian or officer who provided them. That shooting, easily the most contentious in years, was under investigation by the CPRC but that investigation was put on hold because the police department or District Attorney's invesigators(which one, depends on which version of events is presented) found new highly relevant evidence regarding that case.

What is known is that Brown apparently could not respond to verbal commands given to him by two officers either. One of them walked up to where he had retreated into an alcove, gave him several commands then tased him twice. Another officer who arrived later tased him at least five times after essentially arming Brown with a loose handcuff, and then the first officer hit him with his baton at least twice on the legs after that officer had been inadvertantly shocked by the second officer's taser. At some point in that encounter, Officer Terry Ellefson shot him twice in the chest allegedly after Brown had grabbed his taser which Ellefson said he had dropped on the ground while trying to grab the loose handcuff.

Chief Russ Leach urged the CPRC to send him policy recommendations and hopefully, the CPRC will take him up on that.

The police department has apparently been researching different models used by other cities in terms of how their police officers interact with mentally ill or impaired individuals, but the process has both stumbled and at some points, stalled. Ask a different department representative and you'll receive a different response on what exactly is going to be done and when. At two recent meetings, the city has finally admitted that it needs to develop this vital training, there doesn't seem to be much enthusiasm from either the city manager's office or the police department's leadership. The response from the city council differs greatly from Councilman Andrew Melendrez's interest in implementing the training to Councilman Steve Adams' diatribe against the mentally ill being killed for attacking police officers.

Mentally ill people do attack police officers in part because even the appearance of an officer in uniform may be viewed as threatening by individuals who are mentally impaired. In fact, the department's use of force policy states that the initial level of force is the presence of a uniformed police officer.

However, that was not what had happened in the recent cases cited that resulted in the deaths of two individuals. Adams obviously has not been briefed on the fatal incidents involving Brown and Rabb. Far from attacking officers when they arrived onscene, both Brown and Rabb retreated from them, which is another behavior often exhibited by those who are mentally ill or impaired for similar reasons as given above. Brown had retreated into an alcove at the Welcome Inn of America and Rabb had retreated into the kitchen of a friend's apartment according to briefings presented on both incidents to the CPRC by the police department.

What happens in the initial first minutes of an encounter between a police officer(s) and mentally ill or mentally impaired individual is often what defines the entire encounter and how it ends. If this weren't true, then mental health training programs wouldn't be implemented to the degree they have been and if so, they wouldn't have achieved results in many cities including a reduction in use of force incidents including lethal ones. They wouldn't be included in the lists of reforms to be implemented under federal consent decrees.

The beginning of these encounters between the mentally ill and police officers and how they evolve may be assisted by training that police officers receive in dealing with mentally ill individuals. Cities which implemented crisis intervention teams for example reported fewer incidents of use of force against mentally ill individuals by police officers after those programs were put in place including Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and in Colorado. What's interesting about the 40-hour training program that is required of all police officers who join these teams is that people who are mentally ill and family members of mentally ill people share their experiences and perspectives on what it's like and how people who have mental illnesses process information involving what they see and hear or hallucinate.

This model might have very useful in the incidents involving Rabb and Brown.

Still, the department apparently has switched from moving towards the implementation of the crisis intervention team model and closer to putting in place a co-partner model which is when law enforcement officers partner up with mental health professionals. Similar models have been used by law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

The city's response to more civil litigation

City Attorney Gregory Priamos has no response about the latest law suit, choosing not to return phone calls from the Press Enterprise. It's just as well because the city always farms its defense against these types of law suits to outside firms so any responses would probably be best left to them.

The city is expected to fight tooth and nail against both these law suits just as it's doing with the other three that have been filed and just as it will against any law suit that may be filed in the Oct. 19 fatal shooting of Joseph Darnell Hill. Just like it has in the case of Summer Marie Lane since shortly after the CPRC sustained a finding of excessive force against Officer Ryan Wilson who had shot Lane.

In contrast, the city is apparently in talks to settle Wilson's law suit against the city where he had asked them to either grant him an administrative hearing or to nullify the CPRC's finding against him. In December just before a crucial motion hearing, both parties told the presiding judge that they were taking the case off-calendar which usually means either mediation or settlement talks. The two sides will report back in civil court on Feb. 16, presumably with a progress report. If pushed to choose between the two options, it shouldn't be that hard to figure out which one the city will opt for given its behavior the last month against the CPRC. The sensible course of action to take would be to grant Wilson his administrative hearing which would respect both his rights as well as those of the CPRC. But the city's been busy in the past several months trying to "fix" the police commission while the community was busy doing other things.

During a time period when most people celebrate the holiday season, the city manager's office and police department apparently met several times to discuss changing the commission's operating procedures including its investigations of officer-involved deaths which is mandated in the city's charter.

At the last meeting, CPRC Chair Les Davidson seemed compelled for some reason to explain to the body how many meetings he had attended with the city manager last year, including one that took place in December involving representatives of both entities. It was the first confirmation for many community members that these meetings had taken place because the city had decided to be silent on this issue and not inform the public about what it was doing until after the fact.

It wasn't the first time the city government and the police department had closed ranks against the community by not allowing it to even know what was going on let alone participate in the process. All one needs to do is look back throughout the city's history to find this pattern of behavior. And it's no coincidence that these actions taken by the city occurred during the holiday season when it certainly would have known that the attention of city residents would be focused elsewhere.

Still, the law suits, five of them so far, are at various stages of their journeys through the judicial process and will continue until their eventual resolutions.

(excerpt, Press Enterprise article)

"Both these individuals meant something to their families," Dunn said. "They want answers."

Interestingly enough, the harder the city fights these law suits, the closer the families will come to getting what they seek if it is indeed information. And with the ability of the CPRC to investigate officer-involved deaths in apparent limbo, this might continue to be the avenue of choice to take in order to find answers.

According to Dan Bernstein's latest column in the Press Enterprise, it appeared that Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco wasn't too happy with Judge Gary Tranbarger's assessment of the too-many-trials-too-few-judges crisis which has hit Riverside County.

Deadpan curve

Will both parties make up if indeed there are ruffled feathers involved or will the District Attorney's office decide to boycott his courtroom ala Robert Spitzer(whose "trial" involving the Commission on Judicial Performance should have wrapped up by now) until the presiding judge tells him that they need to put disagreements aside and utilize every courtroom?

The letters to the Readers' Forum in the Press Enterprise have been pretty heavy on this issue, most of them from attorneys. One recent letter suggested that judges should convene their courts on several holidays until they have caught up. It'd be interesting to see how well that one would go over.

(excerpt, Bernstein)

Crime & Punishment. RivCo Superior Court Judge Gary Tranbarger has mused that if DA Rod Pacheco were more "prudent" about which cases he brought to trial (see: vandals, illegal dumpers), courtrooms might not be so scarce.

Rumor has it that the DA responded to this gentle critique by instructing his deputies not to converse with Tranbarger -- unless accompanied by an adult supervising DA -- when hizzoner calls prosecutors to the bench for a "sidebar."

My calls to the judge and the DA? Prudently unreturned.

Tit for tat, inside one of the most congested court systems in the state and the District Attorney's office appears to be among the most thin skinned of its kind despite having the state's highest conviction rate. Business as usual in RiverCity.

Oh, and here's an interesting letter written by the police chief in Indio found in the Press Enterprise's Readers' Forum who sees a larger picture involving young people and violence. In several cities in the Inland Empire, violent crimes among young people including gang violence increased after funding to after-school programs had been cut or eliminated.

Putting "one less criminal on the street" is the goal of every law enforcement member ("Spreading students' wings," Jan. 29). We know firsthand how much less costly it is -- in terms of dollars and lives wasted -- to prevent someone from becoming a criminal than to arrest and prosecute him later.

After-school programs offer a low-cost, high-yield opportunity to put kids on the straight and narrow by keeping them off the streets. While all kids can benefit from supervised after-school activities, these programs have proved to be an academic and social lifeline for at-risk youth who have less support and fewer constructive after-school alternatives.

If we don't want our most vulnerable kids becoming our "most wanted" adults, we need to take advantage of all after-school program funding.

Thanks to state grants, there are now expanded elementary and middle school after-school opportunities in our area. But if we are serious about public safety, we also must apply for our share of $35 million in federal dollars earmarked for high-school after-school programs to serve teens -- the kids studies show are most likely to be left alone after school and most likely to commit violent crime during those same critical hours.


Chief of Police
Indio Police Department

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