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Family files lawsuit in Spokane County Jail death; Knezovich rebuts claims

The family of a 33-year-old diabetic man, who died at the Spokane County Jail in February 2013 after taking methamphetamine and being placed in a restraint chair, has filed a federal lawsuit against the county.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who’s named as a defendant in the lawsuit by the estate of Christopher J. Parker, said jail staff did nothing wrong in Parker’s death and hopes the county prevails at trial.

Parker called 911 in the early morning hours of Feb. 24, 2013, claiming he was paranoid, diabetic and had taken meth. Spokane police officers arrived at his home and discovered Parker had a warrant for his arrest because of unpaid child support.

A medical evaluation showed Parker’s blood glucose level at 250, which is considered elevated, according to the lawsuit. The jail’s medical staff were informed of the elevated reading and agreed to book Parker anyway, according to the lawsuit.

Within hours, Parker’s glucose level would climb to 416, an amount above what is commonly considered a medical emergency, according to the lawsuit. In reports, a jail nurse said she’d seen some inmates “walking around” in the jail with glucose levels above 600, according to the lawsuit.

Parker was placed in a holding cell for observation and began swaying and holding his head in his hands, the lawsuit alleges. Surveillance video shows Parker was moved to the booking desk, then back to his holding cell. Jail guards Sandy Rief, Brad Dahlin and Alfred Torres ordered Parker to sit down in the cell, and Parker did not comply, according to the lawsuit. Parker was placed in a headlock, shocked with a stun gun and moved to a restraint chair, the lawsuit alleges.

Parker stopped breathing and became unconscious. His family alleges it took two phone calls to 911 in order to receive an emergency response because jail staff did not inform dispatchers Parker was unconscious on the first call. Parker died in the hallway of the jail, and the death was ruled a homicide. The cause of death was a meth overdose “with restraint stress.” At the time of his death, Parker’s blood glucose level was over 2,000, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court this week, nearly two years after Parker’s father and stepmother filed an administrative claim. William Maxey, the lawyer representing the Parker family, did not respond to a request for comment.

Knezovich, who was in charge of the Spokane County Jail when Parker died, said Parker had refused medication at the jail. He also said the county offered the family an annuity of $25,000 to settle the case, but it was rejected by attorneys.

“I can train my folks to the nth degree,” Knezovich said. “There’s not much you can do when the human body reacts negatively to an illegal drug inside them.”

Drug deaths in jails are a national issue, Knezovich said, not just one faced in Spokane County. A recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that drug or alcohol intoxication has caused roughly 1,000 of the nearly 14,000 jail deaths reported in the U.S. since 2000. In 2013, the year Parker died, roughly 7 percent of jail deaths reported to the Bureau were due to drugs or alcohol.

Knezovich said he hoped the Parker case would go to trial to show that his staff did nothing wrong and discourage future lawsuits against the county.

“Our goal is to continue to decrease the liability to the county,” Knezovich said. “If the historic trend continues, we will do just that.”

Knezovich had county staff prepare a report on the costs of jail medical litigation borne by the Sheriff’s Office since his tenure began in 2006. The data, through June 30, show 55 claims were filed. The courts dismissed 35 of them, and the other 20 amounted to payouts of a little less than $55,000 from the county.

There were repeated calls last summer, including from the Spokane Human Rights Commission, for an investigation into multiple deaths at the Spokane County Jail. Knezovich called the issue “an epidemic” and said drug users arrived at jail “in compromised states.”

“In the case at hand, we tried to take care of the individual medically,” Knezovich said. “We did everything we could.”

The lawsuit has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Salvador Mendoza. There is no scheduled hearing date. The Parkers did not list an amount sought in damages in court filings.

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