LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles City Council committee Monday approved paying nearly $3 million to the family of a 56-year-old grandfather who died in police custody after an LAPD jail guard placed him in a chokehold, sources said.
The City Attorney’s Office had recommended settling the case filed in connection with the death of Vachel Howard for $2.85 million.
The council’s Budget and Finance Committee approved a settlement of the case, paving the way for it to go to the full council and mayor for final approval, according to Richard Williams of the City Clerk’s Office. Williams declined to provide the amount of the proposed settlement, but a source familiar with the matter said it remained at $2.85 million. The case is expected to go before the full council for a vote Oct. 14.
Vachel Howard was unarmed, prone on the floor and being swarmed by five officers when one applied the controversial restraint, according to court records, police commission files and video surveillance footage from inside the police department’s 77th Street Station jail.
The video — key evidence in a federal lawsuit filed by the Howard family against the police — is subject to a protective order barring its release. But its contents are detailed in court papers reviewed by CNN.
Howard, who had been arrested for drunk driving, told police he was a paranoid schizophrenic and that he had not been taking his medications, records show.
Attorneys defending the police said Howard became “violently combative” with officers and had Hulk-like “super human strength,” according to court papers. An autopsy would later reveal the presence of cocaine in his system.
Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Attorney Mike Feuer, declined to comment because the case is pending. His office has tentatively agreed to settle the case for $2.85 million pending the approval of the City Council and mayor, according to court documents.
The details of Howard’s death come to light as police around the country are facing increased scrutiny of their dealings with minority suspects, unarmed suspects and the mentally ill. The chokehold death of Eric Garner last year at the hands of NYPD officers is one of several incidents that prompted anti-police protests around the country. As was the case with Howard, Garner was placed in the hold because he was resisting officers’ attempts to restrain him.
Howard’s case has remained largely under the radar in Los Angeles. The LAPD did not issue a press release the day he died as is typically done with in-custody death cases involving a use of force.
The incident began on June 4, 2012, when Howard was arrested for DUI after allegedly swerving through traffic in his South Los Angeles neighborhood.
In addition to his own comments about being schizophrenic, a background check revealed a past contact with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in which deputies noted that Howard “was mental, and there was possible [bipolar] schizophrenia,” according to court records.
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.
After Howard ceased moving, a nurse and officers, including Romero, attempted CPR, but were unable to revive him. He was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
A lawyer representing Romero in the lawsuit did not return a call seeking comment.
But his account of the incident can be gleaned through court filings, police commission files and other documents.
Romero told investigators he applied the hold for only seconds and believed he had to because Howard seemed impervious to the Taser, was continuing to struggle and attempted to bite him, according to the documents. He said he believed the suspect, who stood 5-10 and weighed 247 pounds, posed a deadly threat to officers.
The city’s Police Commission, a civilian panel that oversees the department and determines whether force is justified, disagreed.
The commission found that Romero’s belief that Howard posed a deadly threat was unreasonable and that, therefore, his decision to apply the restraint violated department policy.
The panel noted that Howard “was in a prone position” with five officers attempting to control at the time the chokehold was applied, according to a summary of the commission’s findings.
Romero was suspended for 22 days, according to LAPD records, but remains on the job.
An autopsy determined that Howard died of “effects of neck compression, coronary atherosclerosis with thrombosis and cocaine intoxication.”
The manner of death was deemed a “homicide,” meaning he died “at the hands of another.”
District Attorney Jackie Lacey declined to bring criminal charges against Romero. A review of the case by prosecutors in her office determined that Romero’s brief application of the chokehold was “a reasonable escalation in the use of force,” given the circumstances.
Attorney V. James DeSimone, who represents several of Howard’s children in their lawsuit against the police, noted that Howard was unarmed and contained in a locked jail in which officers do not carry guns that can be taken from them and used against them.
“He wasn’t going anywhere,” DeSimone said in an interview. “There was just no reason to choke this man out. They treated him like someone whose life didn’t matter.”
One of Howard’s daughters, Tushana, said the violent man described in court files and police reports is unrecognizable as the father she knew.
She acknowledged he had struggled with drugs in the past but said she thought he’d been clean for years.
She also said she was unaware of any history of psychiatric problems, or of any related medications he may have been taking.
“I loved my father how he was — the good and bad,” she said.
She said he spent most of his time restoring classic cars for himself and others. He loved his grandchildren and “anything related to family.”
She said his formidable size was belied by his easy-going nature, noting that her grandmother called him her “gentle giant.”
Her dad had a generous spirit as well, Howard said. He on occasion bought shoes for neighborhood kids who needed them and once bought a bike for another kid. He routinely delivered leftovers or burgers from a fast food joint to a homeless man who hung out on a nearby corner.
“He was big on not leaving anyone out,” she said.