An Arrest, A Strip Search, Then 5 Tasings. Jury Clears LAPD In Death Of Man Who Choked On Heroin
A federal jury has decided that five LAPD officers are not liable for the death of a man who tried to swallow a large bindle of heroin during a strip search, rejecting his family's claim that the police used excessive force while trying to stop him, and failed to render aid that could have saved his life.
One officer allegedly tased Alex Aguilar five times in the 2016 incident - something the chief of police at the time concluded was "objectively unreasonable."
"There was no evidence to substantiate Aguilar was violent prior to the activation of the Taser" and "no evidence he was an immediate threat to the officers", then Chief Charlie Beck said in a report to the Police Commission. The five-member panel that oversees the LAPD ruled that use of the Taser violated department policy.
But the jury, which delivered its verdict on May 5 (nearly three years later), never heard these findings. Judge Consuelo Marshall granted the city's motion that any reference to the conclusions of the former chief and commission be excluded from the trial. She ruled that those conclusions might sway to the jury to give too much weight to their views, and decide that the officer was liable for Aguilar's death. Consuelo said their conclusions would be "more prejudicial than probative."
The family's attorney says he plans to appeal the verdict based on this and other issues.
It was around 6:10 p.m. when two officers spotted Aguilar driving in Wilmington, a community next to the L.A. harbor, marked by the smokestacks of nearby oil refineries.
One officer knew Aguilar, 42, and was aware he didn't have a driver's license or own a car, according to summaries of the incident by the chief, the department's inspector general, and the district attorney, which were all largely based on the work of the LAPD's Force Investigation Division.
The car was owned by Aguilar's passenger, but the LAPD had previously tagged both of them as members of the Westside Wilmas gang. Under a city gang injunction, they were prohibited from associating in public. It's worth noting that a federal judge last year ruled such injunctions were unconstitutional because they imposed onerous sanctions on gang members without first giving them a chance to defend themselves.
Aguilar was well known to one of the officers who spotted him -- Officer Enrique Lopez described Aguilar that night as his usual self - "talkative, messing around with me, joking with me..the only way I knew Alex."
Lopez and his partner called two gang officers, who arrested Aguilar and took him to the LAPD's Harbor Patrol Station. Officers Mathew Medina and Sergio Melero began a strip search because they suspected Aguilar was on drugs and that he could have more on him.
THE STRIP SEARCH
The Harbor Patrol Station's strip search area is a cramped 49-square-feet with three walls for privacy. When Aguilar was searched, according to reports of the incident, he and the officers were were sometimes only inches apart. As additional officers arrived during the struggle, the room was too small for them to enter.
The officers said it was during the strip search that they found a white substance wrapped in clear plastic, tucked into Aguilar's navel.
After that, according the inspector general's summary, Aguilar turned to face the back wall and reached into the back of his underwear, pulled out a white object, and "quickly raised his hand and pushed the object into his mouth."
That object was a bindle containing 26 grams of heroin. Aguilar was trying to shove something similar, in size, to a roll of quarters down his throat.
The officers - who both had about seven years on the job at the time - said they struggled to stop him from swallowing the drugs, grabbing his arms and pushing his chin toward his chest. At that point, according to officers' accounts, Aguilar dropped to his knees.
"He was repeatedly putting his fingers down his throat to try shove this bindle further down because he didn't want the police to recover it," said Senior Assistant City Attorney Cory Brente, who argued the case on behalf of the officers.
WAS AGUILAR A THREAT TO OTHERS?
When the incident was reviewed by department brass, Charlie Beck was still the chief. Beck retired last Summer.
In Beck's analysis, presented 9 months after the incident, Aguilar was not a threat to the officers or anyone else during the struggle that took place while officers attempted to strip search him. And in a deposition, Officer Medina answered in the affirmative when asked if Aguilar was "merely resisting" his and the other officers' efforts to stop him from swallowing the heroin.
At trial, the city countered Beck's assessment, turning to a retired LAPD sergeant who now testifies as a use-of-force expert - mostly on behalf of cities and officers facing civil suits. Jim Katapodis said Aguilar's "assaultive and combative" resistance justified use of the Taser.
With Aguilar on his knees, Medina drew his X26P Axon Taser from its holster. That's the same model an APM Reports investigation found failed to subdue a suspect as often as 55 percent of the time when used by officers in some of the nation's largest police forces.
At Melero's urging, Medina pushed the Taser into Aguilar's back in "drive stun" mode, according to the inspector general. Aguilar stood up and tried to grab it. Medina then stepped back and fired electrodes into his navel area. Aguilar pulled them out and threw them back. Medina them switched back to stun mode and pushed the Taser into his shoulder.
During the next 34 seconds, Medina tased Aguilar five times. Melero added three punches to his face. Aguilar fell to the ground, unconscious. The entire use of force incident that began with the discovery of the heroin lasted about 54 seconds.
SUSPECT IS SILENT
The normally verbal Aguilar remained silent, according to reports on the incident. Absent were the screams of pain you normally hear after the crackle of a Taser.
The coroner later determined that his throat was blocked by the bindle he'd tried to swallow. He was unable to make noise. His family's attorney has claimed that's further evidence that his flailing arms were a distress signal.
"He made a mistake," said his older sister Veronica Aguilar. He lived with her and their parents in Wilmington and picked up occasional work as a laborer. His son Alex Junior, 25, and daughter Preslie, 12, lived with their grandmother around the corner, she said.
Veronica didn't suspect police of brutality until she peered into the casket at the funeral home and saw the bruises on his face.
"It gets me upset," she said. "They did that to him."
It's clear Aguilar never should have tried to swallow the bindle of heroin. But did the tasing that the chief found to be unreasonable make things worse? Could officers have provided better first aid?
The electrical current from a Taser in "drive stun" mode has been found to cause people to breath more quickly, while their throats to contract, said Doctor Martin Chenevert, who specializes in emergency medicine and often testifies for plaintiffs. That "would tend to draw the bindle in Mr. Aguilar's mouth into his airway, thereby creating a medical emergency."
But the bindle, which measured 2.75 x 1.25 x 1 inches, was too large to have travelled deep into Aguilar's trachea - even after the tasing, he stated. His conclusion: "A simple finger sweep to the back of the throat, moving from side to side, would have removed the obstruction."
At this point in the conflict, post-Tasering, Harbor area Sergeant Andrew Hudlett was on scene. One officer asked if he should use his fingers to remove the bindle. Hudlett said no, ordering the four officers now surrounding Aguilar to keep their fingers out of his mouth - even though LAPD trains officers to perform this technique.
In a deposition, Hudlett stated he didn't remember who first told him, but over the years, it became a mantra.
"If it was a suspect, we were not to put our finger in their mouth, for fear we might get our fingers bitten off," the sergeant said. "Or we may even dislodge - push the object obstructing the throat further down."
Even if they're unconscious, Hudlett was asked? "Anytime," he said.
Chenevert countered that bites by unconscious people only happen when the person is still exhibiting muscular contractions, which Aguilar was not. And he said officers would have been unable to push the bindle further down his throat because of its size.
In the doctor's opinion, the officers could have saved Aguilar's life with a finger sweep.
Brente, the city attorney who defended the officers, argued that the bindle was too far down Aguilar's trachea to be retrieved. He noted that the coroner was forced to surgically removed it.
The family's attorney, Ron Kaye, said Brente was misrepresenting the facts. He said the coroner found rigor mortis so extensive that it had locked Aguilar's jaw shut. That would have forced officers to crack open the jaw to get to the bindle. The procedure would have disfigured Aguilar's face and ruined the family's plan for an open casket.
Instead, the coroner decided to make an incision under the chin to reach the bindle.
AGUILAR'S LAST MOMENTS
After Aguilar lost consciousness and Hudlett ordered no finger sweep, officers started CPR and called for paramedics, who arrived six minutes later.
It was 7:30 p.m. -- 80 minutes after Lopez first spotted Aguilar driving in Wilmington. Despite showing "no signs of life," according to emergency medicine doctor Chenevert, paramedics attempted for nearly half an hour to revive him. They pronounced him dead at 7:59 p.m.
The family lawsuit accused the officers of using excessive force on a man who engaged in the fairly common practice of trying to swallow his drugs to keep them out of the hands of police.
The lawsuit also argued that LAPD officers were ill-trained on Tasers - with Lopez saying that in 16 years on the force he received two Taser trainings - one during his first six months in the academy, and a second when he and fellow officers practiced shooting at paper targets.
Medina said in a deposition nearly 20 months after the incident that he had yet to receive Taser training ordered by the chief. During the trial, three years after Aguilar's death, he testified that he'd yet to receive any in-custody training.
The officers "felt relief" after the verdict was reached in their favor, according to city attorney Brente.
"It's taxing on officers to face civil lawsuits," he said. "They are being attacked for simply doing their job."
Aguilar's sister said her brother had outgrown his gang years and that she never saw him hanging out on the street or doing drugs, in the time before his death. She called him a good father who attended parent-teacher conferences at schools, helped his kids with homework, and "played dolls" with his daughter.
"They're making him sound so bad," she told KPCC after the verdict. "He was not bad."
You can read the LAPD report below: