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Video: Footage Surfaces Of Man's Death In L.A. Jail
On June 4, 2012, 56-year-old Vachel Howard was arrested by the LAPD after a car chase. Hours later, he was unconscious on the floor of the 77th Street Station Jail. He'd been held down by six officers, with one placing a chokehold on him momentarily, and another putting a knee on his back. Later, a coroner's report said that his death was caused by cocaine intoxication, heart disease, and the chokehold that was deployed on him.
The incident at the jail was captured by two cameras at the station. The videos were reviewed by a judge after Howard's family had filed a lawsuit. But the footage was kept away from the public by the courts and the police department. On Thursday, ProPublica announced that one of its reporters, Topher Sanders, had obtained the videos, and subsequently posted the footage up on YouTube.
The videos show Howard waiting on a bench at the station. He seems agitated as he shifts in his seat. According to Sanders, Howard is then called over to be evaluated by a nurse; he goes off-camera. Board of Police Commissioners later said that, in this moment, he met the nurse but refused to be evalutated. At some point he advanced towards the nurse, prompting officers to tackle him. The scene spilled back into the view of the cameras. We can see as many as six officers descending on Howard. Officer Juan Romero then puts a chokehold on Howard. The board of commissioners later said that a taser was employed five times (with a possible sixth time) in this incident. As the moment settled, down, officers realized that Howard was unresponsive. A nurse (and, later, paramedics) attempted to resuscitate him for about 18 minutes before he was taken away. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
In a lawsuit, Howard's family blamed his death on the chokehold, and said that he was not given aid in a timely fashion (it was 4 minutes after he was found motionless that he was given CPR). The board of commissioners, after reviewing the case, said that Romero's chokehold was the only violation of police policy. Romero had claimed that he'd employed the chokehold because Howard had tried to bite him, and that he was concerned for the safety of his fellow officers. However, this was contradicted in a report by the board of commissioners:
Though [Romero] recounted that he applied the [chokehold] in defense of the officer's lives, a review of the video surveillance footage of the jail revealed at the time [Romero] reported applying the [chokehold], the Subject was in a prone position with three officers and two detention officers attempting to control the subject...
The board concluded that the scenario "did not constitute a threat that the officer's life of the lives of others were in immediate peril."
Romero was suspended for 22 days, and was back on the job after that. Prosecutors decided not to proceed with a case against Romero. In 2015, the city of Los Angeles agreed to pay Howard's family $2.85 million to settle the wrongful death claim.
As noted by Sanders, in California police agencies are allowed to keep video footage from the general public. On Wednesday, the family of 14-year-old Jesse Romero, who was killed on August 9 while fleeing authorities, pleaded with authorities at a police commissioner's meeting to release body cam footage of the officers involved. One bill that's going to the governor's desk, AB 2611, may further hamper the release of police footage, according to the L.A. Times. The bill says that any footage involving an officer's death will remain unreleased, unless it's authorized by the officer's immediate family. Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, who backs the bill, said that, "No one should have to worry about an audio or video recording of graphic sounds or morbid images be open to the public to be viewed over and over again." But opponents say that the bill gives more opportunities for authorities to cherry-pick the type of information they release to the public. In an editorial, the Times said that "it doesn't serve the public's interest to slap prohibitions on the release of an entire category of information."
The video above was edited by ProPublica to combine footage from two videos obtained by Sanders. The complete footage from both videos can be seen here and here.