Sheriff’s policies unaffected by deaths – Tribune

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Posted on Thu, Sep. 25, 2003 Sheriff’s policies unaffected by deaths Three people have died in six years in arrests by deputies, and in each case the authorities were found to have acted properly Laurie Phillips and Ryan Huff The Tribune During the past six years, at least three people have died during arrests by Sheriff’s Department deputies, and each time the department and the officers in question were accused by the victim’s families of using excessive force. It’s typical in such situations for departments to review policies and procedures relating to excessive force, national law-enforcement experts said. A chief deputy from the Sheriff’s Department said that happened after each of the three cases in question. Chief Deputy Nick Marquart Jr. said Wednesday that the department didn’t change any specific policies or operational procedures after the deaths because deputies were found to have acted properly. He added that deputies receive ample training. He did not specify how that instruction pertains to the use of excessive force during arrests. Sheriff Pat Hedges was on vacation this week and could not be reached for comment. In the two older cases, investigations by the District Attorney’s Office found that the deputies acted properly. The district attorney – and the FBI – are now investigating deputies’ actions related to the death of a Templeton man last month. An attorney for Jay Vestal’s family expects to file a wrongful death lawsuit soon, in response to the Aug. 18 arrest attempt in Templeton. Nationally known law enforcement experts cautioned that while having such cases on a department’s record does not inherently suggest a problem, it does call for scrutiny of the department’s use-of-force policy and the training its deputies receive. “Settlements are such red flags,” said Roy Roberg, an administration of justice professor at San Jose State University. “If there are two, three, four settlements within (six years), somebody (has) believed that some very serious lethal or excessive force is being used.” Reviewing older cases While Vestal’s death is the most recent instance of an arrest by deputies that turned fatal, there are at least two other examples – both in rural areas of the county in 1997. At the request of a travel-trailer owner, Deputy John Marrs went to California Valley on April 4, 1997, to help evict tenant Ralph Stuart, who had been living on the property for some time without the owner’s permission. It was the second time in two weeks Marrs visited the property off Highway 58, three miles east of Soda Lake Road. Stuart was not violent during the first visit, but he told the deputy he wouldn’t leave, then-Sheriff Ed Williams said at the time. After Marrs drove his patrol car up to the trailer on the second visit, officials said, Stuart confronted the deputy. Stuart, 64, allegedly struck Marrs on the head and hand with a two-by-four. As they struggled on the ground, officials said, Marrs used a baton and pepper spray before fatally shooting Stuart in the back of the head. Two years later, Stuart’s family sued the county in federal court, but the county Board of Supervisors settled the case for $350,000. The Deputy Sheriff’s Association awarded Marrs with a medal for “outstanding and courageous performance of his duties.” In another case, a Santa Margarita man died of a heart attack soon after he was handcuffed by deputies on Dec. 21, 1997. Donal Schneider, 69, died after he resisted arrest during a traffic stop on Highway 58, a mile east of Highway 229. Deputies Mark Gunter and Sandy Leber pulled Schneider over because his registration had expired two years before. Schneider got out of the car to speak to deputies, who told him he was under arrest. As Schneider walked back toward his 1984 Cadillac, a struggle ensued, Williams said at the time. While Schneider didn’t hit deputies or threaten them, he allegedly pulled out a folded Buck knife before deputies grabbed it and flung it away, Williams said then. Deputies then handcuffed Schneider, who experienced shortness of breath and collapsed. Deputies removed the handcuffs,Williams said, and began CPR. But Schneider died at the scene about an hour after the ordeal began. Neither deputy was hurt in the struggle. A Superior Court lawsuit filed by Schneider’s companion, Betty Myers, alleged that he was “subjected to unlawful arrest, excessive force and unreasonable restraint.” It also alleged that deputies allowed Schneider to die rather than assist him. The lawsuit was dismissed in 1999. Recent case pending In the third and most recent case, Jay Vestal of California Valley died early Aug. 18 in the driveway of his girlfriend’s Templeton home as a result of positional asphyxia. That condition can occur when a body is placed in a position that interferes with breathing. A resident of Templeton Mobile Home Trailer Park called police at 1:25 a.m. and reported that Vestal was roaming around the park and yelling his girlfriend’s name. After a deputy knocked on the trailer belonging to the mother of Vestal’s girlfriend, one of the deputies discussed with Vestal a misdemeanor warrant that had been issued for Vestal’s arrest. Vestal had failed three times to appear in court after being arrested on marijuana possession charges. Vestal, 36, was persuaded outside, witnesses said, then handcuffed and wrestled to the ground by a group of deputies. Witnesses said Vestal did not resist arrest; the Sheriff’s Department said he did. Witnesses insist at least four deputies sat on Vestal’s back until he stopped breathing. Toxicology reports later indicated the presence of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine in Vestal’s blood, although not at levels that were inherently toxic, a Los Angeles lab independently confirmed. ‘Excessive decisions’ Ron Martinelli, a former Morro Bay police detective and Cal Poly criminal justice instructor, said determining whether the deputies were justified in the use of force in the Vestal case will include several factors. “This case boils down to the lack of training or supervision, lack of competency for the officer in ‘use of force’ skills and the lack of proper critical decision making,” said Martinelli, a criminologist with Martinelli & Associates Justice Consultants. “When officers don’t have enough training, are marginally competent with the skills and they are adrenalized, they jump to much higher levels of force than they need to,” he said. “They make very poor decisions and often excessive decisions.” Law enforcement training levels are mandated by California Peace Officer Standards and Training, a unit of the state Department of Justice. Mario Rodriguez, a senior consultant with POST, said all law enforcement officers employed by the state’s 58 sheriff’s departments and some 500 municipal departments are required to undergo 24 hours of training every two years. Agencies can choose from hundreds of courses, including arresting, driving and shooting. “They’re meant to be minimum standards, and they’re meant to be generic,” Rodriguez said of the two dozen hours required. “That allows agency heads to set policies. We want to make sure they get some sort of training.” When considering the three cases in question, Rodriguez said it’s essential to consider the level of experience of the deputies involved and whether any policy changes resulted. “You also have to think about the attitude of the head of the agency,” he said. “They must be willing to weed out those who just don’t cut it or aren’t strong enough.” Seeking openness Dan Kuhn, program manager for the Delinquency Control Institute at the University of Southern California, said departments should continue to be accessible to the public even when something goes wrong. “I think the day of the cover-up is over,” he said. “There are too many people out there asking what happened. People are asking questions, and people are finding out the truth. “(Departments) should learn from each other. Don’t wait until you make a mistake and step in it to determine that it’s not good.” ——————————————————————————– Reach Laurie Phillips at 781-7907 or or Ryan Huff at 781-7909 or Source:

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