June 13, 2013

Tasered man stopped breathing after chokehold

By The Spokesman-Review
 

New details released Thursday indicate that the man who died earlier this month following a confrontation with Spokane County Sheriff’s deputies stopped breathing after one of the deputies put him in a chokehold designed to restrict the flow of blood to the brain.

The deputy who used the chokehold, technically referred to as a lateral-vascular neck restraint, did so only after 34-year-old William Berger kept struggling after three shocks with a Taser. During that struggle, Berger also reportedly grabbed a Taser and tried to use it on one of the arresting deputies, Washington State Patrol Trooper Jeff Sevigney said.

Paynter, left, and Audie

Deputies Steve Paynter and Shawn Audie responded June 6 to calls describing Berger as acting disorderly inside the Oz Fitness gym at 5501 S. Regal St.

“The first deputy (Paynter) arrived and contacted Berger in the middle of the street,” Sevigney wrote. “Berger began striking the deputy’s vehicle. The deputy attempted to calm Berger but Berger took a fighting stance. (Pantyer) deployed his Taser, causing Berger to fall to the ground.”

Berger then stood up, pulled out the barbed Taser probes and ran a short distance when he apparently saw Deputy Audie arriving at the scene.

“Both deputies engaged Berger at which point Berger continued to be confrontational with deputies,” Sevigney said.

The deputies shocked Berger with a Taser two more times and he again fell to the ground.

“The Taser effect was not long lasting and Berger continued to fight,” Sevigney said.

Deputy Audie then put Berger in what Sevigney called “lateral vascular neck restraint” but what is commonly referred to as a sleepler hold, where someone wraps their arm around the neck to restrict blood supply to the brain.

However, Berger, who had martial arts training, was able to pull Audie’s arm away “as they fought,” Sevigney sad. “During the fight, Berger got control of one of the Tasers and attempted to use it against one of the deputies.”

As the struggle continued, Audie was able to regain control of Berger by applying a second chokehold.

“Berger stopped resisting, at which time deputies noticed that he had stopped breathing,” Sevigney wrote. “EMS personnel were already on scene, and with assistance of the deputies, Berger was revived and transported to” Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Richard Gere, who is the department’s defensive tactics and use of force expert, said he is not aware of a single death attributed to the lateral-vascular neck restraint “if it’s applied correctly.”

The use of the “carotid restraint hold,” as it’s referred to in a search warrant filed Thursday related to Berger’s case, has been a source of decades-long controversy.

Some of largest civil settlements in Las Vegas have come from use of chokeholds during arrest,s according to a 2011 report in the Las Vegas Sun about a $1 million settlement to a family for the 2009 death of a man who died after officers used the lateral-vascular neck restraint.

The report also indicated that The Los Angeles Police Department discontinued the use of the holds after several deaths in the 1980s.

Gere said deputies are trained to only use the neck holds during times when suspects are actively resisting or assaulting the arresting officer. The use of the hold can only be done during times when deputies would also be justified in using their Tasers or batons.

Deputy Audie, who in this case used the chokehold on Berger, is a certified lateral-vascular neck restraint instructor, Gere said.

“They are trained to use it by positioning the arm around the subject’s neck, making sure to stay off the front of the neck to avoid damaging the trachea or larynx,” he said. “They are also taught to apply equal compression to both sides of the neck … until the person goes unconscious. Once they go unconscious, they are taught to release the hold and placed them in restraints as soon as possible, so when the person wakes up to 5 to 20 seconds, they are in restraints.”

The Spokane County Medical Examiner has not yet determined the cause of Berger’s death, but sources indicated last week that he had recently suffered a head injury for which he was hospitalized.

Berger also had a similar encounter on June 4 at a central Spokane gym when Berger showed up for Brazilian Jiu-jitsu group session. Owner Bart Smith said in an earlier interview that Berger acted “quirky” before striking his grappling partner. Berger also toppled a trash can before barricading himself in the gym’s bathroom.

Joe Bornstein was working out at the Oz Fitness on South Regal when he similarly noticed Berger’s behavior change from normal to irrational.

Bornstein previously told The Spokesman-Review that he saw the first deputy walk up without conversation and shoot Berger with a Taser.

But on Thursday, Bornstein said he may not have seen the entire confrontation.

Bornstein said he helped Oz staff get Berger out of the gym. He then returned into the locker room to get dressed. When he walked outside, Bornstein said he heard a loud noise as if Berger had been struck by a car. But another witness told him that the noise came from Berger striking a car.

It’s then Bornstein _ who hadn’t been contacted by investigators a week after the incident _ saw Berger near the corner of an un-finished parking lot across the street from the gym.

“He was kind of bent over, legs wide a little bit, but he was very strangely jumping,” Bornstein said. “I watched (the deputy) walk from the car. He walked straight up to him and Tased the guy.”

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said based on his understanding of the incident, Bornstein may have missed key details described other witnesses during the time Bornstein was getting dressed.

Based on his published statement last week, Knezovich said he personally asked WSP detectives to contact Bornstein. “I will call back and determine if they were able to do so,” Knezovich said.

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