Deaths Prompt Shifts in Police Use of Hogtying
Law enforcement policies on hogtying combative suspects are being challenged and in many cases revamped across Los Angeles County after a series of recent deaths partly linked to the tactic and mounting medical evidence of its potentially lethal effects.
In the year since controversy erupted over the death of a Pasadena barber who had been hogtied by police, records show that three additional, little-noticed deaths in police custody have been partially attributed to the effects of hogtying--or hobbling, in police parlance. The cases have fueled potentially costly wrongful death claims and a flurry of policy changes by police and paramedics, ranging from minor tinkering to an outright ban.
Typically used when officers confront violent or drug-intoxicated suspects acting bizarrely, hogtying immobilizes an arrestee by attaching the ankles to cuffed hands behind the back using a cord or strap. Some agencies, such as the LAPD, see it as an effective tool on the streets. But others, including the New York Police Department, banned it years ago and use padded Velcro strips to restrain suspects.
By some accounts, hogtying gained favor in Los Angeles in the 1980s when officers found themselves increasingly confronting PCP users exhibiting superhuman strength.
But Hubert Williams, a former New Jersey police chief and now president of the Washington, D.C.-based Police Foundation, said “most departments don’t use hogtying.” It appears to be more common in the West, he said. Still, the tactic has largely escaped serious study as researchers have focused on what they considered more lethal police practices, he said.
“It is an area that really cries out for more serious attention,” he said.
One reason for the newly heightened scrutiny locally is that medical examiners, influenced by recent West Coast studies, are increasingly citing hogtying and its effects as a contributing cause of death in police custody cases. Researchers have found that hogtying, particularly when excited or obese suspects are placed on their stomachs, can interfere with their ability to breathe and can be deadly.
“Because of the growing awareness . . . our doctors are looking at this very critically,” said Scott Carrier, spokesman for the Los Angeles County coroner’s office.
A review of five years of police custody deaths in the county by The Times in early 1993, after the death of the Pasadena barber, Michael James Bryant, found that restraint tactics were cited as a contributing cause in just five cases. By contrast, in just nine months since that period, hogtying or its effects have been cited as a contributing factor in at least four deaths.
The first direct links between hogtying and sudden deaths in police custody were made in a 1992 study co-authored by Seattle area coroner Donald Reay. A broader study by Ventura County coroner Ronald O'Halloran, published in December, further documented the risk and suggested that it would be “both humane and prudent to develop some safer means of control and protection.”
Still, officials stress, circumstances vary widely in such cases, and it is often near impossible to say conclusively that a person would not have died without the hogtying. “It’s not black and white,” said Carrier.
With understanding of the dangers still evolving--and some police officials saying alternatives for dealing with violent, often drug-intoxicated suspects are limited--city representatives maintain that they are addressing the issue appropriately.
“Obviously, we are learning,” said attorney Bruce Praet, whose law firm represents dozens of police agencies in Southern California. “(But) it’s not like the bad guys are taking a break while we test these things. There obviously is a need to prevent people from kicking officers, nurses, (paramedics) and kicking the windows out of patrol cars.”
The deaths are providing ammunition to watchdog groups for a full assault on the practice, reminiscent of earlier controversies over use of chokeholds, which eventually were banned by the LAPD and other agencies.
“We really intend to go after the use of the hogtying,” said John Burton, a board member of a group called Police Watch and an attorney representing the family of a 30-year-old man who died in September after being hogtied by Bell Gardens police. Burton says law enforcement is “acting completely irresponsibly to allow these death cases to mount. Hogtying someone is barbaric. It really has no place in a society that gets sanctimonious about someone getting caned in Singapore.”
Recent modifications of hobbling policies may raise additional safety questions, records and interviews show.
For example, the LAPD revised its policy in late 1992, after medical studies first pointed to the potential dangers and a jury awarded $1.1 million to the parents of a man who died after being hogtied. The new policy requires hogtied suspects to be kept on their side, which is considered safer, although they still may be transported while hobbled in the back seat of patrol car.
“I don’t think you should transport them in that mode,” said Reay, the Seattle coroner who did pioneering research on the issue. “I think that’s dangerous.”
The LAPD also appears to allow tighter cinching of the behind-the-back restraint during transport than some other agencies, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which also has revamped its policies.
“It’s not designed to be torture,” said LAPD Lt. John Dunkin. “(But) if they still are able to flex and unflex their knees, then you wouldn’t have obtained the desired result . . . preventing them from kicking about.” Dunkin added that the procedure is under continuing review.
The Sheriff’s Department policy, amended after the Bryant case, requires arrestees to be transported sitting upright in a patrol car. Legs are secured by a strap, which can be held in place by closing the patrol car door on it. Those who must be transported lying down are required to travel by ambulance, strapped to a gurney on their side.
But questions now are arising about the modified versions of the restraint. The Sheriff’s Department is examining what role the revised hobble may have played in the January death of an Azusa man. The coroner’s office ruled the death a homicide caused by the combined effects of drug intoxication and various restraint procedures used by deputies, including the hobble. According to the department’s account of the incident, deputies followed the new procedures and kept the man on his side.
The ongoing review is looking “at different (arrestee) positions using the hobble (and whether) we need to change the position of the hobble itself,” said Sgt. Gilbert Aguilar, who works on training issues involving field deputies. “We have to reduce the risks being experienced out there with sudden death.”
Pasadena recently banned hogtying altogether.
As practices and policies shift, there are potentially large financial stakes for taxpayers. “Once we identify something as a hazard . . . there are great risks (in) terms of the amount of money hanging out there in liability,” Reay said.
Indeed, wrongful death claims and lawsuits have been filed by relatives of Bryant, the Pasadena barber, and three other men who died in the recent cases linked to hobbling.
In March, 1993, Bryant led police on a multi-city chase that ended in Highland Park. He died after being hogtied by LAPD officers and placed on his stomach in the back seat of a San Marino patrol car. The cause of death was ruled to be cocaine intoxication and asphyxia related to the restraint procedures.
Two months and two days later, after considerable publicity about the effects of hogtying in the Bryant case, records show that 35-year-old Richard Coleman died near Hollywood after being hobbled by LAPD officers.
Coleman had been acting bizarrely in the middle of Sunset Boulevard, banging his head on the pavement, according to official accounts. Officers struggled with and hogtied him, but kept him on his side, a district attorney’s investigation found.
However, Coleman later was hoisted onto a gurney and strapped face-down when paramedics arrived. He went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital, investigators found.
Coleman’s death was ruled a homicide because of the combined effects of methamphetamine intoxication and the restraint maneuvers used.
While investigations by the LAPD, the Fire Department and the district attorney’s office found no wrongdoing on the part of officers or paramedics, Coleman’s father is not satisfied.
“I’m very, very uncomfortable with it,” said Robert Coleman, 64. “I think they just mishandled him after they hogtied him. . . . That’s what we feel cost him his life.”
His son, a once successful salesman and father of two children, had struggled with drug problems off and on, said Coleman, an Army retiree. “I’m not disputing that; not trying to make excuses for him. (But) I don’t care what his problems were. Misuse (of force) by authorities under any conditions is not appropriate.” The family has filed a multimillion-dollar wrongful death claim against the city.
A remarkably similar scenario unfolded four months later in Bell Gardens, where Phillip Vogel was hogtied by police and strapped face-down on an ambulance gurney.
Vogel, a house painter and aspiring musician, was found riding his bicycle in and out of traffic on Gage Avenue one afternoon last September, according to police accounts. After struggling and spitting blood at police, Vogel was hogtied and continued struggling, according to police reports.
Los Angeles County Fire Department paramedics were summoned, checked Vogel and approved him for transport to County-USC Medical Center, police reports show. Officers and ambulance attendants strapped Vogel face-down on a gurney. Officers questioned maintaining the restraints, according to police reports, but deferred to the ambulance attendants, who requested that Vogel remain hogtied and strapped down.
Vogel went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and was pronounced dead a short time later.
Police officials refused to discuss details of the arrest, particularly how Vogel was positioned by police, citing pending litigation by Vogel’s relatives. A district attorney’s office investigation is continuing, but Bell Gardens officials said no officers violated policy.
The coroner’s office ruled Vogel’s death a homicide, with the immediate cause asphyxiation related to the effects of hogtying. Multiple drug intoxication was a contributing factor.
“I think that they had him in the hogtie too damn long,” said Vogel’s sister, Suanne Garcia. Vogel had been arrested in drug-related incidents before and “had drugs in his body that day,” she said. “But he did not deserve to die for that.
“He had a job. He had hopes and dreams,” she said.
In the most recent case, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies answered a 911 call in Azusa in January and confronted 25-year-old Daniel Gizowski. A parolee just out of prison after serving time for narcotics sales, Gizowski was causing a disturbance at a female friend’s house and yelling incoherently when deputies arrived, the department says. Deputies used pepper spray and a Taser gun with no effect, said Deputy Patrick Hauser, a department spokesman.
Several deputies, some of whom were bitten and injured, swarmed Gizowski and applied a hobble restraint. “He was specifically placed on his side” and was only on his stomach “during the time he was being placed in restraint,” Hauser said.
After being moved to the back porch, Gizowski began showing signs of shortness of breath. Deputies performed CPR while awaiting arrival of paramedics, but he was later pronounced dead at a local hospital, Hauser said.
The coroner ruled the case a homicide, saying Gizowski died of a combination of methamphetamine intoxication and asphyxia related to forcible restraint procedures, including a neck hold and hobble.
The Sheriff’s Department says the deputies followed a revised, presumably safer hobbling policy that had been adopted in June, 1993, after the Bryant death. It requires looser hobble binding, keeping suspects on their side and constant monitoring for breathing difficulties.
Roger Diamond, the attorney for the Gizowski family, said he is investigating the sheriff’s hobbling and restraint procedures. “It’s amazing . . . the L.A. County coroner is willing to go this far,” he said, referring to the autopsy findings. He said it raises the prospect that the department “might be utilizing a procedure that itself is defective. If it is flawed, the county should recognize that right away so it doesn’t happen again.”
Aguilar, the sheriff’s training specialist, said the department believes it has selected the best option currently available, and is continuing to examine alternatives.
“We can only deal with what . . . we have right now,” he said. “I do not believe that (we) want to take anything away that would put deputies at risk . . . and not give them something in its place.”
The string of cases has highlighted the widely varying, sometimes loosely coordinated changes in policy that have emerged in the past 18 months.
In October, 1992, when the LAPD amended its hobble restraint policy, it spelled out the risks. “Recent medical evidence suggests that use of the cord-cuff leg restrainer (on certain arrestees) can result in serious injury or death,” the policy noted. Officers were instructed to ensure that hogtied suspects remained on their side and were monitored closely.
But it was unclear in the Bryant case how many LAPD officers at the scene actually knew of the department’s revised policy. Three months after Bryant’s death, the LAPD reissued a departmentwide bulletin on the procedures.
The revisions apparently were not immediately communicated to Los Angeles paramedics, who frequently work with LAPD officers in transporting hogtied suspects. It was not until a month after Coleman’s death--and nearly seven months after the city Police Department modified its policy--that the paramedics were prohibited from strapping hogtied patients face-down on gurneys.
Fire Capt. Dave Thompson, assistant bureau commander of medical services, said he could not account for the delay, although he said that the LAPD apparently had not advised the Fire Department of its concerns and that the medical risks had not been noted in paramedic literature.
It was not until December--three months after Vogel’s death--that Bell Gardens police adopted a new policy that requires hobbled suspects to be kept on their side and transported only in a seated position in patrol cars, a department spokesman said.
And it was only in the past few weeks--nearly a year after the Sheriff’s Department revised its policy to reduce risks--that the county Fire Department issued guidelines to paramedics to ensure that hobbled patients are not allowed to rest on their stomachs.
“It’s something we’re just moving into,” said Battalion Chief Ed Thacher. “I don’t know if they have that much medical information out there that says conclusively this is better than that. I don’t think there’s been enough study yet to show if (someone) comes in on his side, he won’t come in dead.”
Critics contend that the issue simply hasn’t been a high priority for police and other agencies.
“The fact is they don’t understand they’re doing this to people, or they don’t care,” said attorney Burton. “It just seems impossible to me there’s no way of restraining these people without killing them.”
A controversy over hogtying of violent suspects by law enforcement officers is heating up amid growing medical evidence that the practice can interfere with breathing and contribute to sudden deaths. Here is a look at the Los Angeles County coroner’s office findings in four recent cases that were ruled homicides, partly because of the effects of hogtying restraint procedures.
Name: Michael James Bryant
Case: In March, 1993, the Pasadena barber died from a combination of cocaine intoxication and asphyxia after being hogtied by LAPD officers and placed face-down in the rear seat of a patrol car.
Name: Richard Coleman
Case: In May, 1993, the salesman died of a combination of methamphetamine intoxication and asphyxia after being hogtied by LAPD officers and later strapped face-down on a city paramedic gurney.
Name: Phillip Vogel
Case: In September, 1993, the house painter and musician died of asphyxiation after being hogtied by Bell Gardens police and then strapped face-down on an ambulance gurney. Multiple drug intoxication was a contributing factor.
Name: Daniel Gizowski
Case: In January, the newly released prison parolee died of a combination of methamphetamine intoxication and asphyxia related to restraint procedures, including hobbling, used by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies.