Thursday, August 5, 2004

Gaps in police training evident


Cincinnati's independent police oversight board has correctly called for severe discipline against officers in the Nathaniel Jones death-in-custody case, and made painfully clear that city officers still need special training.

The violent struggle between officers and the drug-impaired, 348-pound Jones early Nov. 30 drew national attention. It should reassure the nation and this community that Cincinnati's new Citizen Complaint Authority is up to the task of conducting tough but balanced reviews of controversial police cases.

The Police Department will file a response to CCA's recommendations, and City Manager Valerie Lemmie, as is proper, will have the last word on disciplining the seven officers. A police internal investigation is still open. In March, Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing.

The oversight board found no malice in the officers' actions, but concluded three used excessive force, and all six officers plus a sergeant failed to follow procedures. The autopsy found Jones was intoxicated with cocaine and PCP. His bizarre behavior and striking an officer in the face contributed to his death, but police and firefighters made a series of tragic mistakes. Jones' death was preventable.

Although videotapes, witnesses and the autopsy showed officers followed correct training by not hitting Jones in vital spots with their batons,the police review board voted 5-2 that three officers used excessive force. Jones was struck 33 times. Department procedures require officers to "immediately de-escalate" use of force as they gain control over a person.

Procedures also instruct officers they can back off and wait out a mentally ill or drug-impaired subject who poses no immediate threat.

After the struggle, Jones was cuffed lying face down. Chief Deputy Coroner Robert Pfalzgraf told investigators that placing an obese person in a prone position in itself is enough to cause death, even minus drugs. A police training bulletin advised officers to bring such a subject "as soon as possible" to a seated position. It should read "immediately." Even after Jones was unresponsive and emergency medical technician firefighters demanded the cuffs be removed, only one officer agreed to remove them.

Officers should receive hands-on training how to prevent "positional asphyxia," or suffocation, particularly when dealing with an obese person. Oral reading of a bulletin isn't training.

Jones' death has prompted many what-ifs. What if officers had been equipped with Tasers, as they are now? They called for a Taser, but no one could put his hands on one. They called for a trained Mental Health Response Team officer, but help arrived too late. More, if not all officers, should be trained to deal with mentally disturbed suspects.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled police shouldn't be second-guessed in split-second life-or-death encounters. Jones posed a powerful, , physical threat, but most of the police mistakes in this case were not such split-second decisions.

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