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Saturday, June 07, 2008

Editorial: Death in Woodland raises host of questions

UPDATE: October 10, 2008
Official cause of death: "positional asphyxiation"

June 7, 2008
Sacramento Bee, California

Ricardo Manuel Abrahams died last week after Woodland police shot him four times with Tasers and then beat him with their batons.

The anguished cry of Abrahams' grieving mother – "What was his crime?" – deserves a thorough investigation. The family needs to know what happened. So do mental health officials in Woodland. So do police.

The night before the incident, Abrahams voluntarily admitted himself to a mental health crisis facility. When he walked away from the facility the next day, officials there alerted police. According to police, when officers encountered Abrahams walking down a Woodland street he became "aggressive and confrontational and ignored their commands."

Because Abrahams worked in the Yolo County District Attorney's Office, conflict-of-interest rules bar Yolo DA investigators from conducting the probe. The California attorney general's office will investigate instead.

Clearly investigators need to determine if police acted reasonably in this case, whether department policy was followed or excessive force was used. But that determination alone will do nothing to make similar situations in Woodland and elsewhere less likely to end in death.

State and local authorities also need to examine this incident for what it reveals about officer training – or the lack of it. Apparently, four officers were unable to safely subdue one large man armed, according to one account, with "a pencil."

Michael Summers is a retired Sacramento city police sergeant who trains law enforcement officers on how to intervene in crisis situations – when a person suffering from mental illness or an out-of-control teenager, a drunk or an addict high on drugs needs to be subdued.

Summers, now a consultant with the Yolo County Department of Alcohol Drugs and Mental Health, says most police academies devote too little time to training officers on how to deal with the disabled, particularly people experiencing a mental health crisis, those who are deeply depressed, hallucinating or hearing voices. Individuals in such a state are often unable to understand simple commands. It takes time and patience to talk someone in an agitated state down, to make them understand.

Woodland Police Chief Carey Sullivan points out that his officers stopped Abrahams only because they were alerted by mental health professionals. Officers were trying to determine if he was a "danger to himself or others." They decided he needed to be evaluated and were "obligated" to take him into custody. In doing so, "there was a struggle" and he died. It was "not a result anybody wanted," Sullivan said.

No coroner's report has been released, so the exact cause of Abrahams' death is unknown. It would be unfair to speculate at this point.

But it is not too early to ask questions. Under what circumstances should Tasers be used, particularly against someone who has committed no crime? How many Tasers can be used without endangering someone's life? Most important, do Woodland officers – or officers in other cities – have sufficient training to respond appropriately to someone experiencing a mental health crisis?

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