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Sacramento officer involved in death of mentally ill man was cleared two decades ago in another fatality

Sacramento PD dash cam video
Sacramento police dash-cam video.
(Sacramento Police Department)

One of two Sacramento officers who shot a mentally ill man in July after apparently attempting to run him over was cleared two decades ago in the death of another suspect.

The Sacramento County district attorney’s office on Friday released the results of its investigation into the 1997 death of Albert Glenn Thiel.

After a police chase in a stolen car and then on foot, Thiel struggled as five officers tried to pull his hands behind his back, according to the report. They hit him with batons and with their hands to force compliance.

Officer John Tennis wrapped an arm around Thiel’s neck and put him into a choke-hold, the report said. The handcuffed man was put into the back of a patrol car, where paramedics later discovered he had no pulse.

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The Sacramento Police Department and district attorney’s office have yet to release their reports on the death of Joseph Mann, 50, who was killed by Tennis and Officer Randy Lozoya this summer.

The patrolmen, along with other officers, had responded to reports of a man with a gun and a knife wandering through a north Sacramento neighborhood and behaving strangely. Video recorded by a dashboard camera shows that Lozoya and Tennis discussed trying to hit Mann with their vehicle. After failing to do that, they shot him 14 times.

Family members said Mann was mentally ill, and a toxicology report indicated the presence of methamphetamine in his blood. They have filed a civil lawsuit against the city.

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A lawyer representing Mann’s family said Friday that the 1997 death investigation draws the portrait of “an unrestrained personality.”

“The means justified the end ... there was never any proportionality here,” John Burris said. 

The incident involving Thiel, 35 — coupled with a 2012 domestic violence report and departmental records from 2013 and 2014 showing that Tennis had been ordered to seek treatment for alcoholism — were “points of light that should have alerted the department,” Burris said. “The department has a responsibility to not ratify misbehavior and to be protective of the public in (deciding) where they deploy officers.”

But Ed Obayashi, a deputy sheriff for Plumas County who is also an attorney, said: “There is no thing as a half officer. Every officer must be able to patrol.”

He also pointed out that Tennis alone did not decide how to react to Mann. “You have to remember there were two officers in that car … and they agreed on the action,” Obayashi said.

In the Thiel case, according to the district attorney’s report, Tennis said he was attempting a carotid control hold, which applies pressure to the sides of the neck and cuts off blood to the brain. However Tennis wound up with his arm across the front of Thiel’s neck, the report said, putting pressure on cartilage, which can crush and block breathing.

Since that time, the use of carotid neck holds has largely been banned by police departments, Obayashi said.

After Thiel was handcuffed and brought to his feet, the report said, he was “breathing heavily as though the fight had winded him” and was “somewhat limp” — unable to walk on his own as officers put him into a patrol car. Tennis’ arm was still around his neck.

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Thiel remained in the back seat, handcuffed and on his stomach, while officers and paramedics checked on a canine officer who had been injured. When paramedics checked on Thiel, they found that he had stopped breathing.

A coroner’s report cited the cause of death as suffocation caused by “blunt force trauma of the neck.”

The district attorney at the time found that there was insufficient evidence to press involuntary manslaughter charges against Tennis, saying “reasonable force” had been used.

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

For updates and more, follow @paigestjohn.

richard.winton@latimes.com

Twitter: @lacrimes

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