Deaths in police custody up, half attributed to natural causes
Manuel Ornelas died as he battled Long Beach police officers who were trying to subdue him in response to a Saturday morning call for help last September. Ornelas was apparently intoxicated and bleeding. He was subdued with an “an electronic control device,” according to police, went into cardiac arrest and died. His death was attributed to natural causes and is still under investigation.
Richard Stefanik also died while in police custody in September, and it could be said the cause was a broken heart. In November 2014, Stefanik was arrested for the murder of his wife of 58 years. She was suffering from cancer, and by most accounts it was a failed murder-suicide.
The death of Stefanik, in county jail, was also ruled natural.
Ornelas, 47, and Stefanik, 81, were among the 744 individuals who died last year in the custody of law enforcement or a state agency, an increase of 8 percent over the average in the last decade. The deceased included 47 women. One in five were either convicted of homicide or were awaiting trial on homicide-related charges.
Half the deaths were determined to be due to natural causes, according to data from the California Department of Justice. Thirty-four of the deaths were classified as accidental, including two by hanging or strangulation and a drug overdose.
There were also 62 deaths ruled suicides, and 96 deaths, or 13 percent, were determined to have resulted from justifiable shootings by law enforcement. One-hundred fifty-eight cases are pending investigation, 41 of them connected to an arrest in progress and 51 of them at state facilities.
In 2005, 62 percent of custodial deaths were determined to be natural, and 8 percent justifiable, according to a report from the state’s Attorney General.
In-custody deaths have drawn national attention following last year’s high-profile cases of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Sandra Bland outside Houston.
Gray died while being transported to jail by police officers. Six officers are charged with murder in his death. The first case ended in a mistrial in December.
Bland’s death was ruled a jail cell suicide by hanging after she was stopped for a traffic violation and was taken in for allegedly assaulting a police officer.
Dubious classifications of death
The classifications for the recently released data in California, though, are often dubious and open to interpretation.
Among the deaths ruled suicides were those of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who in December killed 14 people in a terrorist attack on a social services office in San Bernardino County. News accounts have said the couple was killed in a shootout with police.
Also included in the death total are homicides committed by inmates, mostly referred to as accidental. And the jurisdiction is sometimes hazy in the reporting.
For example, Choi Saeteurn, 68, was allegedly beaten to death by a 35-year-old inmate in January 2015 in Sacramento County’s main jail. In records, the death is attributed to the Azusa Police Department, located 400 miles south of Sacramento.
Also, of the 47 women’s deaths, four were attributed to suicide, including Malik’s. Six were determined to be justifiable homicide, including that of Angela Slack, who was arrested on misdemeanor prostitution charges and whose relatives posted a graphic YouTube video of her in her last days alleging that Slack was abused by police. Slack’s cause of death is listed as hanging/strangulation.
One female death was deemed accidental, that of Sara Corliss, who died Jan. 2, 2015, and whose death in a Los Angeles County Jail is still being investigated.
In an email, the state Attorney General’s office said that each department is responsible for investigating their own custodial deaths, including the detail of those deaths.
The California State Auditor in January released a list of agencies that have failed to address perceived problems in their operations. The state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has failed for six years to implement changes that would give inmates more supervision and to protect the safety of both inmates and corrections officers.
More than half of custodial deaths since the early 2000s have occurred in facilities run by the state.
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