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California

L.A. council to consider settlement in chokehold death of jailed suspect

The Los Angeles City Council is slated to consider a $2.85-million settlement of a lawsuit brought by the family of a man who died after an L.A. police jailer placed him in a chokehold.

In June 2012, Vachel Howard, 56, was taken to the 77th Street Community Police Station after being arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. Once there, he became involved in a struggle with officers and was repeatedly Tased before a detention officer used a chokehold on him, court and police records show.

A jailhouse security camera captured parts of the fatal incident. The video remains under seal in a federal lawsuit by Howard’s family.

The Howard family’s lawyers contend that the video shows the man had been thoroughly subdued at the time detention officer Juan Romero applied the chokehold.

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That chokehold, known as a modified carotid restraint control hold, is considered a deadly use of force and can be used only by LAPD personnel when there is an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death to an officer or a member of the public.

On Monday, a City Council budget committee reviewed a settlement offer and sent it to the council for its approval Oct.14.

Prosecutors found that Romero and other officers acted legally in using force. The city’s police commission, however, determined the jailer’s use of deadly force to be outside department policy. He was the subject of an internal disciplinary proceeding.

The commission, a civilian panel that oversees the LAPD, decided that Romero’s belief that Howard’s resistance and attempt to bite amounted to a serious or deadly threat was unreasonable and that the jailer’s use of the chokehold violated department policy.

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“There were five or six officers on him when the chokehold was applied.... There was no threat of injury or death to another. His death was completely unnecessary,” said V. James DeSimone, the Howard family’s attorney.

Attorneys for the LAPD insisted that Howard seemed to possess superhuman strength and was repeatedly combative, and that the Taser was ineffective on him. Romero’s attorney did not return calls.

LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith said the department could not comment on the litigation. News of the settlement was first reported by CNN.

Howard’s death was deemed a homicide by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office. His death was caused by neck compression, coronary disease and cocaine intoxication, a medical examiner determined. Cocaine was found in his system, records show.

Howard had been taken into custody on suspicion of drunk driving June 4. He informed officers he had been taking medication and declared himself a paranoid schizophrenic. Once at the 77th Street station, he was stripped-searched as officers suspected he had drugs on him.

According to the police chief’s report, Howard became uncooperative, broke free of the officers and advanced toward a police nurse. An officer then used a Taser, but Howard continued to swing his arms at the jailer and a police officer, the report said.

On the video, six officers are seen struggling to control Howard on the police station floor.

Romero told authorities he applied the chokehold for five seconds using his right biceps and forearm.

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Shortly after 2 p.m., the security video shows Howard appearing lifeless as a nurse checks his pulse and a minute later begins chest compressions, according to records. For seven minutes the nurse and officers attempted to revive Howard, who later was pronounced dead at a hospital.

richard.winton@latimes.com


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