Family of black grandfather who died after police chokehold gets $3M settlement


The family of a black grandfather who was placed in a chokehold by police and later died has been awarded a preliminary $2.85 million settlement, CNN reported today.

The case of Vachel Howard, who died in a Los Angeles jail, is reminiscent of the death of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old grandfather who died after police put in him a chokehold in Staten Island last year.

Like Garner’s, Howard’s chokehold was caught on camera, but this video hasn’t been made public yet. It’s subject to a court order barring its release, due to a federal lawsuit the Howard family filed against the city. Details of the video, however, are detailed in court records.

“There was just no reason to choke this man out. They treated him like someone whose life didn’t matter.”

Today Los Angeles agreed to settle Howard’s case for $2.85 million, pending the approval of the city council and mayor. The case has flown under the radar in the city. Unlike almost all death-in-custody cases, the city didn’t even issue a press release about the incident when it happened in June of 2012.

Howard, 56, was arrested for drunk driving. Once he was taken into police custody, he told officers that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and that he was not on his medications, CNN reported, citing court documents. During previous interactions with police, deputies noted that he “was mental, and there was possible [bipolar] schizophrenia.”

Knowing this, officers should have handled his arrest differently, Howard’s family and attorney say. This is how it went down, via CNN:

Officers brought Howard to the LAPD’s 77th Street jail and conducted a strip search, revealing he was unarmed. He was briefly handcuffed to a bench, then un-cuffed and taken to see a nurse.
As officers led him to the nurse, he went out of range of the surveillance cameras. According to court documents, Howard resisted being examined by the nurse. At one point he allegedly advanced in her direction and she screamed. When officers tried to control him, he began swinging his arms, throwing punches and struggling to break free, according to officers’ accounts.
When he came back into range of the surveillance cameras, he was brought to the ground in a swarm of officers, according to court papers. During the scuffle, one repeatedly shocked him with the Taser. Detention officer Juan Romero wrapped his arm around Howard’s neck and applied what’s known in the LAPD as a “modified carotid restraint” — or chokehold. Howard was ultimately re-handcuffed and a restraint was placed on his legs, court papers state.

The officer who placed the chokehold on Howard was found to have violated department policies when using that controversial technique, found a subsequent review by the Los Angeles Police Department and a civilian panel that oversees the department.

He was suspended for 22 days for the violation, but remains on the job. The district attorney neglected to bring charges against him.

“[Howard] wasn’t going anywhere,” family attorney V. James DeSimone told CNN in an interview. “There was just no reason to choke this man out. They treated him like someone whose life didn’t matter.”

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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