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Officers Hogtied Pasadena Barber Who Died in Custody

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the coroner continues to unravel the mystery of why a popular Pasadena barber died in police custody, police are admitting that the man was hogtied and placed on his stomach despite findings that the practice is dangerous for some people.

Just before he died March 9, Michael James Bryant was hogtied--or “cord-cuffed” in police parlance--because he was agitated and flailing about, a Los Angeles Police Department investigator said. Police concede that Bryant was placed on his stomach, even though an LAPD directive less than five months ago banned the practice.

That ban came after an LAPD case in which the family of a Hollywood man won a jury verdict of $1.1 million after they claimed that the man’s death was caused by hogtying.

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The practice, several experts say, is particularly dangerous to agitated, obese people. By attaching handcuffs and leg restraints behind a person’s back, and forcing him into a “rocker” position on the stomach, pathologists have found, hogtying puts pressure on the lungs that can lead to what experts call “positional asphyxia.”

Hogtying “can kill people,” said Dr. David Reay, a medical examiner in the Seattle area who has studied and written articles about the arrest procedure. “If a person has a big belly, it can push up on the diaphragm so he can’t breathe too well over a period of time. If the person continues to struggle, muscle fatigue sets in and he just stops breathing.”

Bryant, a 6-foot 1-inch, 320-pound barber, had led officers from four cities on a car chase from San Marino to a Highland Park swimming pool after his car clipped and slightly injured a San Marino police officer, said Lt. William Hall of the Los Angeles Police Department.

To subdue Bryant, police stunned him with a battery-powered Taser gun after he had jumped into a back-yard swimming pool in Highland Park. Officers pulled the suspect from the pool and hogtied him, Hall said.

The cause of death is under investigation. The coroner has ordered toxicological and other tests after an autopsy last week failed to produce a cause of death.

A pathologist hired by the family performed an autopsy, again with inconclusive results, a lawyer representing the family said.

In October, a Superior Court jury found that Los Angeles police officers acted negligently when they arrested and cord-cuffed Tracy Mayberry in 1990. The Hollywood man was showing symptoms of cocaine-induced psychosis at the time.

In that case the suspect, who was 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed 272 pounds, stopped breathing and died a few minutes after officers cord-cuffed him and laid him on his stomach. The family accepted $700,000 during the city’s appeal of the court decision.

Ventura County Medical Examiner Ronald O'Halloran, who has done research on cord-cuffing, said the problem arises when an individual’s metabolism has increased, because of either drug use or acute psychotic delirium.

“There’s a great oxygen demand, coupled with the fact that when the subject is in a prone position, he’s not getting enough oxygen,” O'Halloran said.

Hogtying has long been an accepted practice by police departments because it is particularly effective in keeping violent subjects from flailing their arms and legs.

“It’s a very safe technique, actually,” said Los Angeles Public Affairs Officer Art Holmes. “I’ve used it myself. You put the handcuffs on first, then wrap the cord around, bringing the feet and ankles together. You hogtie the suspect into the rocker position, where he can’t hurt anybody.”

But 10 days after the Mayberry case ruling, the Los Angeles Police Department modified the accepted use of cord-cuffing.

In a directive issued Oct. 31, Capt. David R. Doan, head of personnel and training, ordered arresting officers to keep cord-cuffed subjects on their sides rather than on their stomachs and to monitor their breathing continuously.

Preliminary statements from witnesses and arresting officers indicate that the bulky Bryant was placed on his stomach in the back of a San Marino police car, LAPD’s Hall said. “It was probably the only way he would fit,” Hall said.

But the LAPD directive may not have applied, Hall said, because officers from three cities carried Bryant to the San Marino car to be transported to that city for booking.

San Marino Police Chief Frank Wills said that his officers are not equipped with cord cuffs and that his department does not use the hogtying procedure. “Our officers did not apply the handcuffs or the hobble,” he said.

It was a San Marino officer who noticed that Bryant was having difficulty breathing and summoned paramedics, Wills said.

Pasadena Police Cmdr. Donn Burwell said officers from his department assisted in carrying Bryant to the car, but Burwell had not determined whether they helped to handcuff or cord-cuff Bryant. “Our officers assisted in carrying him to the police car and had no further involvement,” he said.

In addition to the Los Angeles department, two San Diego agencies have been reassessing the practice of hogtying. The San Diego Sheriff’s Department no longer uses the technique because of related deaths in that area, a sheriff’s spokesman said.

The San Diego Police Department uses a modified version, including a procedure to attach leg cords to a waist cord, rather than to the handcuffs, said Dave Cohen, senior public information officer.

Jovial, outspoken Bryant, barber to many African-American Pasadenans and Altadenans for more than 10 years, was a respected figure in the city’s northwest neighborhood, where he cut the hair of low-income teen-agers for free in the week before schools opened in September. The Pasadena City Council held a moment of silence for him at its meeting Tuesday.

“They killed him--murdered him, use any word you want--when they hogtied him and threw him in the back seat,” said Beverly Mitchell, Bryant’s cousin. Lawyers representing Bryant’s wife and two children say they will sue the arresting officers and the police departments they work for.

In 1989, Bryant sued Pasadena police and a security guard firm after an incident in which he was arrested during a street altercation. Bryant charged that he had been wrongfully detained, and he won a $1,500 out-of-court settlement two years later.

In that case, he also was hogtied and placed in the back of a police car, said his lawyer, Carol Watson.

“He told me he could hardly breathe,” Watson said.


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