Security holds on autopsies: How do they work and why are they necessary?

Security holds on autopsies are common in celebrity and high-profile cases and in police-involved deaths

After several months, Los Angeles police lifted a security hold last week on the coroner's autopsy of Ezell Ford, a mentally ill man shot in South Los Angeles by two police officers.

The move allowed the public disclosure of Ford's autopsy and came after Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered the LAPD to lift the hold amid pressure from activists and a neighborhood council demanding details about Ford's Aug. 11 shooting.

Security holds are used by various law enforcement agencies and are common in celebrity or high-profile cases. They have been used in the deaths of singer Whitney Houston, actor Paul Walker and the wife of actor Robert Blake. The autopsy of Bell Gardens Mayor Daniel Crespo, who was shot by his wife in September, was kept confidential for several weeks at the request of Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives.

Such holds rarely generate attention, but they have been controversial in some police-related deaths.

Though Ford's autopsy was disclosed, some South L.A. residents and activists have called for the release of the autopsy on Omar Abrego, who died after a violent struggle with two LAPD sergeants in South L.A. nine days before Ford was shot. That security hold remains despite demands from the South-Central Neighborhood Council that the LAPD lift it.

What is a security hold?

A security hold is a directive from detectives to the coroner's office not to publicly disclose details from an autopsy, notes written by coroner's investigators or results from toxicology and other tests. Detectives usually request the hold in writing and later notify the coroner's office by letter when it can be released.

Why do investigators use security holds?

Generally, detectives seek to limit the public disclosure of facts about a death when they have yet to interview witnesses, people who know the dead person or — if the death is suspicious — potential suspects. LAPD Lt. Andy Neiman said detectives may want to keep to themselves information about the murder weapon or other pieces of physical evidence that only an actual witness or perpetrator would know about.

In the case of Ford, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said detectives had difficulty finding witnesses and were concerned that the release of details about Ford's injuries could influence witness statements.

Ford's autopsy showed he was shot once in the arm, once in the side and once in the back with a gun fired from such close range that it left a muzzle mark. Beck said Ford, 25, wrestled an officer to the ground and tried to grab the officer's gun. When that occurred, a second officer shot Ford twice while the officer struggling with Ford shot him in the back after reaching around him and firing a back-up gun, police said.

Critics say security holds undermine transparency and foster distrust of investigations into police-related deaths. In the Ford case, the release of the autopsy led to several protests of the LAPD, with some demonstrators saying they believed that the release of the information was delayed to allow anger about the shooting to cool and publicity to wane.

How long do security holds last?

Coroner's Deputy Chief Ed Winter said security holds can last from a few days to indefinitely. Usually, the holds are in place for weeks or a few months. The holds in the Ford and Abrego cases, he said, lasted longer than most.

In the case of Abrego, LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith said detectives initially sought the security hold to also ensure that any witness statements would not be influenced by details from the autopsy.

But the LAPD's Force Investigation Division, which investigates all the department's officer-involved shootings, has continued to keep the case under wraps because it "needs some clarification on some issues regarding the autopsy," Smith said. He declined to elaborate.

Abrego's Aug. 2 arrest occurred after someone flagged down two Newton Division sergeants, Robert Calderon and Jeff Mares, about a white vehicle driving erratically. A short time later, the sergeants saw a white vehicle driving fast and nearly striking a pedestrian in a crosswalk, police said. In the 6900 block of South Main Street, Abrego jumped out of the vehicle and attempted to run until the sergeants caught him, Smith said.

After a struggle with the sergeants, Abrego was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 5:10 a.m. Aug. 3. Both sergeants were treated at a hospital, one for a broken hand and the other for a knee injury, police said.

Before the LAPD asked for a security hold, the coroner's office told The Times that Abrego had suffered a severe concussion and multiple cuts to his face and body. A preliminary coroner's note said Abrego was combative and suffered from acute cocaine intoxication. A video of the incident captured on a bystander's phone and posted online showed Abrego bloodied and lying face down at the curb with two uniformed LAPD officers holding him down.

City Councilman Curren D. Price Jr. told The Times he has asked the LAPD to release the security hold as soon as possible. "These things are held too long," he said. "It creates a sense of distrust with the process."

Twitter: @lacrimes

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times