LOS ANGELES — The Police Commission July 21 cleared two officers who were involved in a physical struggle with a 37-year-old man who died the next day while in police custody.
The commission voted unanimously to agree with Police Chief Charlie Beck’s assessment that Sgts. Robert Calderon and Jeff Mares acted within policy in their Aug. 2 encounter with Omar Abrego.
Abrego, whose death has been cited by some activists as an example of excessive force by police, died from the “effects of cocaine,” according to the redacted report by Beck that cited the Los Angeles County coroner’s office examination.
The coroner’s Aug. 9 report also said “physical and emotional duress” was a contributing condition that was not related the immediate cause of death.
Calderon and Mares began pursuing Abrego on Aug. 2 at around 5:45 p.m., after they were flagged down by a person who told them about a driver of a “suspicious” white vehicle “with no plates.”
The sergeants later spotted a vehicle that appeared to fit that description going westbound on 70th Street that did not stop at a stop sign, then nearly hit a pedestrian as the car continued north on Broadway, according to the report.
One of the sergeants said Abrego looked to be “driving erratically.”
The driver of the white van then drove onto Main Street, with Abrego then getting out the back of the van, the report said. Police instructed Abrego to lie on the ground. Abrego appeared to comply by going down into a crouch, but then got back up and fled.
One sergeant chased Abrego about 10 to 15 feet, before Abrego stopped suddenly and turned around, the report said.
The sergeant responded by putting Abrego in a bear hug, but Abrego broke free and punched the sergeant in the chest, which was followed by the sergeant punching Abrego in the face three times, according to the report.
The second sergeant caught up and came to the first sergeant’s aid by grabbing Abrego’s left arm and helping to bring Abrego to the ground.
The sergeants called for backup, and continued to try to restrain Abrego, who was kicking at them, prompting the sergeants to put a restraint around Abrego’s ankles and placing him on his left side, the report said.
After Abrego began “mumbling incoherently while spitting saliva and blood,” officers placed a spit sock over his head, but removed it a few minutes later after it was soiled by dirt or mud, according to the report.
Abrego was later treated by Los Angeles Fire Department personnel, then taken to Centinela Freeman Regional Medical Center, the report said.
Abrego was eventually admitted to the hospital at 10:40 p.m. “for an altered mental state and rhabdomyolysis,” the report said.
Rhabdomyolysis is the breakdown of muscle tissue that leads to the release of muscle fiber contents into the blood. These substances are harmful to the kidney and often cause kidney damage.
The next morning at around 5:20 a.m., about 11 1/2 hours later, Abrego “failed to respond to treatment and was pronounced dead,” according to the report.
Abrego’s mother, Lilia Abrego Figueroa filed a $25 million federal wrongful death lawsuit in March, naming the city of Los Angeles and its police department, along with Mares, Calderon, Beck and Mayor Eric Garcetti.