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Death of man in LAPD custody probed

A man who complained he was struggling to breathe died in Los Angeles police custody last month after officers ignored his repeated pleas for help, according to multiple law enforcement sources who reviewed a videotape of the incident.

Two officers taking 26-year-old Jorge Azucena to an LAPD station were dismissive of his "numerous, numerous statements about trouble breathing and [needing] help," said one source. At one point, an officer responded to Azucena with a quip along the lines of, "If you can talk, you can breathe," the source recalled.

The Times confirmed the contents of the recording with multiple sources, all of whom requested anonymity because the incident is under investigation. The recording came from a video camera installed in the patrol car.

Azucena had been detained late at night on Sept. 6 after a car and foot pursuit in South L.A. The officers drove him to the Southwest Division station, where he was placed in a cell. Sometime later, according to an LAPD news release, authorities noticed that Azucena was in distress. He was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead shortly after 3:30 a.m. the next day, coroner records show.

Los Angeles County coroner officials said an autopsy did not reveal the cause of death. As is the customary procedure, officials are now awaiting the results of toxicology tests.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck declined to discuss the specifics of Azucena's death, including the names of the officers involved, citing an internal investigation now underway. Cmdr. Andrew Smith, a spokesman for Beck, said the chief has removed two officers and three supervisors from the field pending the findings of the inquiry.

The investigation comes less than a year after another patrol car camera captured LAPD officers disregarding signs that a female suspect was having difficulty breathing. The 35-year-old woman, Alesia Thomas, died last year shortly after LAPD officers forced her into the back of a patrol car.

Video from that incident led prosecutors to file a felony assault charge against Officer Mary O'Callaghan. She was allegedly caught on tape shouting profanities at Thomas and using her foot to shove or kick the woman in the groin during the struggle to put her in the car. O'Callaghan has pleaded not guilty.

In Azucena's case, several people who had seen the video or been briefed on the incident expressed dismay that the officers in the car would act as they did knowing that a camera was recording them — a strong indication that the officers didn't believe they were behaving inappropriately, they said.

"If our officers are not trained to make an assessment when someone needs medical attention, then they have the obligation, not only professionally, but morally, to err on the side of caution and make that call for help," said one person who reviewed the video.

Several days after Azucena died, the LAPD posted on its website a brief account of the incident. The statement made no mention of Azucena's requests for help or the existence of a video.

According to the LAPD's version of events, officers assigned to an anti-gang unit in the Southwest Division attempted to pull over the driver of a late model SUV, who they suspected was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. A pursuit ensued and several more police vehicles joined the chase. Near Jim Gilliam Park in Baldwin Hills, Azucena and two other men jumped out of the SUV and fled on foot, the LAPD said. It is not known if Azucena was driving.

A police helicopter tracked Azucena and a second man until officers on the ground could apprehend them. Azucena, police say, was "taken into custody without incident" and brought to the Southwest Division station.

In interviews with The Times, family members said Azucena was out with friends on the night of Sept. 6 and never returned home. When Azucena failed to show up, his mother and girlfriend, with whom he had a young child, said they searched for days at area hospitals and filed a missing-person report with the LAPD. When they asked at the Southwest Division station and two other stations in the area, they said they were told there was no record of Azucena having been taken into custody. More than three days after Azucena's apprehension, the women went back to the Southwest station and were finally told by detectives of the young man's death, they said.

Whenever someone is taken into custody and brought to a station, LAPD rules require that the station's supervisor asks the person a series of questions before being placed in a detention cell. One of the questions that must be asked and documented on a form is whether the person is ill or has any medical conditions needing attention.

Citing the ongoing investigation, Beck refused to say whether Azucena was asked those questions and, if so, what his responses were. He also declined to say how long Azucena was in the holding cell before paramedics were called. Through Smith, Beck confirmed that video cameras inside the Southwest station were operating normally the night Azucena was brought in, but Beck declined to comment on what the cameras recorded.

LAPD rules also require officers to call for paramedics when somebody in their custody requests medical treatment.

A few weeks after Azucena died, Beck recorded a video message that all officers were required to view. In it, he referred to "a couple recent incidents where officers did not request an [ambulance] when they should have." Beck recited for officers the department's "straightforward" policy on summoning medical help.

"I don't expect you to be medical experts," he said, "but I do expect you to use your good judgment."

joel.rubin@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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