Richmond pays $1.5 million to family of mentally ill man who died in police custody
on December 1, 2011
The city of Richmond agreed last week to pay $1.5 million to the family of Uriah Dach, a mentally ill man who died after a confrontation with police in 2008. Yet after three years and the finalization of the settlement, the details of what exactly happened to Dach have not been agreed upon.
Police were called to Dach’s rented room in a building on Florida Avenue after Dach, 26, reportedly threatened a female resident. The responding officer asked Dach, who was diagnosed with bipolar and schizoaffective disorder, to speak with him. Dach said some nonsensical things before going back into his room.
The Dach family’s attorney, Michael Haddad, said the first officer called for additional police backup with Taser guns because he felt that Dach was a threat. Haddad said the cops entered Dach’s room, where the young man was watching TV, and told him to show his hands. Dach started to retreat.
“At that point, Uriah had not done anything violent, but he only disobeyed command to put his hands up,” Haddad said. “There is a special tactic for police when dealing with the mentally ill. You are supposed to talk to them and keep them calm.”
What happened next depends on whom you ask. Haddad said the officers Tased Dach for 72 seconds straight, and then after a quick break continued to Tase him again and again. He said Dach was pepper sprayed and beaten with batons, struggling to get away until he finally stumbled out the front door where he was tripped and tackled by police.
Dach, who weighed about 380 pounds, was forced to his stomach, where Haddad says he soon died of asphyxiation from his position on the ground coupled with the effects of the Taser and pepper spray.
Haddad said a private autopsy, done after an initial autopsy by a Contra Costa County forensic pathologist, revealed many levels of blunt force trauma to Dach’s head. The doctor testified in the autopsy report and in deposition that she saw bruising consistent with “at least ten blows to the head.” But the Richmond Police Department denies that any of the officers struck Dach on the head.
The RPD also disputes how long Dach was Tasered and his cause of death.
Assistant City Attorney Bruce Soublet said city experts believe Dach died of a condition called “excited delirium.”
“When you have a person who has cognitive issues, as Mr. Dach did, and who may or may not have been taking their medications, in a physical altercation they can get so excited that they can have breathing problems,” he said.
“Excited delirium” has been used to explain deaths in police custody or after the use of Tasers. But the diagnosis is controversial. Neither the American Medical Association nor the American Psychological Association recognize it as a medical or mental health condition.
Police Captain Mark Gagan said investigators from the RPD’s detective division and internal affairs, and from the District Attorney’s office, looked into the incident. None found that the officers violated policy or used an unsubstantiated amount of force.
RPD Chief Chris Magnus said in an email that there was no administrative investigation because the District Attorney’s investigation “involved extensive scrutiny and review.”
“The conclusion was that no criminal wrongdoing was found to have taken place on the part of the officers involved,” he said.
None of the officers involved in the incident were disciplined nor did the Police Commission sustain any complaint against their actions.
“Mr. Dach’s death was tragic, but not necessarily avoidable,” Magnus said. “Officers already receive training in dealing with mentally ill persons, but when they are forced to confront a violent, high-risk individual who is an active threat to others, their options can be very limited. I have tremendous sympathy for Mr. Dach’s family, but I believe our officers did the best they could under difficult circumstances to handle a volatile person under rapidly changing circumstances.”
Haddad called the incident “one of the most egregious and sickening uses of excessive force” that he has encountered.
“Other than giving a lot of money to the family, the police department has never accepted responsibility,” Haddad said.
Assistant City Attorney Soublet said the settlement does not mean that the defendants or the city of Richmond agree with the family’s claims.
“We were geared up and ready to go trial,” he said. “In all these kinds of cases there’s an inherent risk. You may think you have a really good case and are ready to try it, but you never know what a jury can do. And if you lose these kinds of cases, not only do you lose to the plaintiff, but then you might pay their attorney’s fees.”
No official policy changes have been made to the RPD in response to the Dach case. But Gagan said Taser policies are periodically amended and Lieutenant Brian Dickerson said the department will begin selecting police officers on each patrol team to go through a specialized crisis-intervention training course.
“It’s just shy of a 40-hour class,” Dickerson said. “It’s a really comprehensive class on best practices for working with the mentally ill … It talks about different types of mental health ailments, best practices for when you approach [those with mental illness], identification of certain ailments.”
Dickerson said this is not a change in policy but, rather, a supplemental course in addition to the routine advanced training.
“I have been doing this just shy of 23 years,” Dickerson said. “It seems like every time you have an incident … we do find ways to better the industry and better the way we do things. Unfortunately, things sometimes happen. But I guess it’s positive, too, since we need the changes.”
Haddad says he is still outraged by what happened to Dach and was willing to go to trial. But, now three years after Dach’s death, the family is tired.
“This has been so painful for [the family] and to this day Uriah’s mother really can’t bear to hear what happened to him in detail, so I don’t know if they have it in them to keep fighting,” Haddad said.
The family has stated that they plan to use the money from the settlement to advocate for improved treatment of the mentally ill.
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