Ripple joined Officer Jackson on Rachel’s back, while McCann held down his legs. Rachel continued to struggle and would not surrender his right hand, so Ripple used a “closed fist punch” three to five times on Rachel’s back as a stun technique. Ripple later testified in an affidavit that he put his knee into Rachel’s shoulder “for a few seconds” to gain leverage on his arm.
Meanwhile, according to a proposed statement of facts, Lt. Elia was employing a brachial stun technique on Rachel — using the back of his hand to strike at Rachel’s carotid artery. When he found that he didn’t have enough room for an effective wind-up, Elia decided to push on a pressure point between Rachel’s ear and jaw for 10 to 15 seconds.
Eventually, the four were able to handcuff Rachel, but according to Ripple, he continued to struggle, prompting his decision to employ four-point restraints. Ripple testified that beside his quick effort to gain control of Rachel’s arm, “at no other time, during this incident, did I sit, kneel or stand on Gregory Rachel.”
After the restraints were on, Ripple claims officers rolled Rachel onto his side. Ripple said he stood next to Rachel and “continued to watch and monitor his breathing” as his chest rose and fell, but there appeared to be “snot bubbles coming in and out of his nose.”
McCann told investigators that before officers attempted to move him, Rachel seized. Ripple allegedly told McCann, as the two officers were standing over him, that the last word he uttered before he “passed out” was “Gestapo.”
“I don’t know what the hell that, you know that’s what he said, ‘Gestapo.’ That’s the last thing he yelled and the he, all of a sudden he just, he was out,” McCann said.
Elia left to supervise another call and Ripple asked McCann to pull his car around.
Minutes later, as the three remaining officers lifted Rachel to transport him to a patrol car, they noticed he was limp. Setting Rachel back down, Patrick Phillips, the paramedic who lived next door, approached the officers.
“Do you need any help?” he asked.
STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE
For their part, defendants in the case are assuming a customary defense. An answer filed on behalf of Sgt. Ripple summarily denies each charge against the officers, contending the complaint itself fails to state a valid claim for relief. Ripple claims he was “acting within the line and scope of his employment as a police officer for the city of Mobile” and further argues he “acted reasonably and in good faith” and “used only such force as was reasonably necessary under the circumstances.” There are also several claims of immunity in his defense, citing his role as an agent of the state and an officer of the law.
In deposition last year McCann, a seven-year officer at the MPD and U.S. Army vet, spoke with attorneys about training and institutional policies in the department. He indicated that while there were substantial training and policies geared toward approaching people under the influence of drugs, there were few protocols for dealing with the “emotionally disturbed,” or providing medical assistance to people in custody.
“We don’t get a lot of training on how to deal with emotionally disturbed people,” he said. “Primarily because, we’re not psychologists, we’re police officers. You know, emotionally disturbed people go to psychologists. They don’t come to the police.”
However, just one year before Rachel’s death, on March 24, 2011, Chief Micheal Williams approved MO-2011-03, a policy entitled “RECOGNIZING AND HANDLING PERSONS WITH MENTAL ILLNESS.”
The policy includes a list of do’s and dont’s for approaching and interacting with a person with a mental illness including: do remain calm and avoid overreacting, don’t move suddenly, giving rapid orders or shouting. But buried further on page six of the seven-page policy it also states:
C: “Violent struggle extreme enough to require the officers to employ restraint techniques — subjects who have engaged in extreme violent activities may be more vulnerable to subsequent respiratory failure.”
D: “ Unresponsiveness of subject during or immediately after a struggle — Such unresponsive behavior may indicate cardio-pulmonary arrest and the need for medical attention.
The next item in the policy specifically defines and lists symptoms for recognizing “Excited Delirium,” noting that “certain persons lying on their stomach have trouble breathing, a condition which can be intensified when pressure is applied to their back.”
The policy’s guidelines for preventing in-custody deaths include: calling for back-up, calling for a paramedic, transporting the subject in a seated position or on his side, hog-tie as a last resort for officer safety and monitoring the subject closely.
McCann said he believed there was such a policy, but couldn’t name it specifically. Asked about the nature of his training beyond the police academy, he said if new policies were introduced, they were discussed at roll-call lineups 15 minutes prior to the beginning of each shift or at annual in-service training, which each officer is obligated to attend for about one week each year.
Dr. George Kirkham, a criminologist at Florida State University, was enlisted by the plaintiffs to review the officers’ actions and weigh them against policies adopted by the MPD. In a letter of conclusions dated Sept. 29, 2014, Kirkham determined that “at the time officers McCann and Jackson encountered Greg Rachel, he did not immediately pose a threat to them or to anyone else in the immediate area. Despite this fact, neither officer ever made any attempt to ‘calm the situation’ or provide a ‘reassurance’ to this obviously terrified man. In a dramatic departure from the professional stand just referenced, both officers gratuitously and recklessly escalated the situation by advancing on Greg Rachel with tasers drawn as they began issuing commands and yelling at the subject.
“McCann (and Jackson) violated the clear and mandatory policy MO-2011-03 and that those violations, based upon my experience and training, provoked the violence that inevitably led to Gregory Rachel’s death,” Kirkham concluded.
Regarding the plaintiff’s claims the MPD was negligent by failing to implement or enforce policies on the use of force, tasers and interacting with “emotionally disturbed persons,” a proposed statement of facts suggests the officers were all well trained by the department and were simply using their discretion with an individual who “posed a danger to the officers, to the victim, to the wider community, and even to himself.”
The condition “excited delirium” is not recognized by the American Medical Association or the American Psychological Association. The condition can’t be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the definitive text in the field.
But according to an abstract published by the National Institutes of Health, excited (or agitated) delirium “is characterized by agitation, aggression, acute distress and sudden death, often in the pre-hospital care setting. It is typically associated with the use of drugs that alter dopamine processing, hyperthermia, and, most notably, sometimes with death of the affected person in the custody of law enforcement. Subjects typically die from cardiopulmonary arrest, although the cause is debated.”
In Rachel’s case, the plaintiff enlisted as an expert witness Dr. Carl Adams, a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon based in Colorado. Reviewing the medical record, Adams disagreed with the cause of death reached by the medical examiner. Rather than excited delirium, Adams believed Rachel died from “primary cardiac arrest that was induced by taser.”
The defense also disputes Adams’ findings, suggesting he offered no evidence beyond the flatline shown on an EKG.
Replies are expected in the defendants’ motion for summary judgment by March 23. If a judge upholds the merits of the case, it is scheduled for jury selection in May. The Mobile Police Department did not immediately respond to a press inquiry seeking more information about the circumstances of Rachel’s death, the status of the officers’ employment, or procedural questions.
The original version of this article was updated to clarify the number of officers present at the time Rachel was discovered to be unresponsive. Lt. Edward Elia had left the scene by that time, while three officers remained. Elia returned after hearing that Rachel was in medical distress. Also, jury selection is scheduled for May 2015, not “early 2016” as the article originally reported.
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