The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has reached a $225,000 settlement agreement with the family of Tommy Tucker, a schizophrenic inmate who was killed by a swarm of San Diego Central Jail guards during a use-of-force incident in 2009, about a month after he was booked on a domestic-violence charge.
As CityBeat reported in its “60 Dead Inmates” series [“Wheels of force,” April 3], sheriff’s deputies applied extreme takedown tactics to subdue the mentally and physically disabled inmate. The combination of methods that cut off the oxygen to Tucker’s brain included a chokehold, pepper spray, a spit sock and holding Tucker’s face down with his hands cuffed behind his back. Tucker’s fatal act of disobedience was leaving his cell during a lockdown to get a glass of water.
The settlement was significantly lower than the $600,000 received by the family of Jeffrey Dewall, who died under similar circumstances a year before Tucker. One difference is that lawyers for the Dewall family filed suit six months after his death in 2008 and resolved it within two months.
Lawyers for Tucker’s family say they didn’t have that option because the Sheriff’s Department delayed the release of information until the statute of limitations under California wrongful-death laws had expired. Instead, Tucker’s family could pursue action only under federal law, which is more favorable to law enforcement.
“In this matter, the family was not told that the death of Tommy Tucker was as the result of an altercation with deputies until approximately 1 1/2 years following Mr. Tucker’s death,” attorney R. Stan Morris said in a written statement. “Hopefully, in the future the County will choose not to delay such release of critical information to families and allow a free field of play with victims of wrongful police activities.”
Morris’ statement outlines several areas where it believes the Sheriff’s Department will adjust policy as a result of the suit, including paying “special attention” to the needs of disabled inmates like Tucker and relying on nonviolent measures when there’s no threat of imminent danger. The statement also notes that the department will change its internal investigation process for in-custody deaths to prevent witnesses from meeting to get their stories straight before providing official statements.
“We believe that the department now understands and appreciates that an investigation, in order to be credible, must be based upon individual, and not collective, recollections,” Morris writes.
County officials declined to comment for this story.
Here’s the full statement of the family, via R. Stan Morris:
The family of Tommy Tucker believes that no outcome can serve as justice for Tommy’s death, but in the sense of a moral victory, the family is satisfied that those persons involved in the incident that led to Tommy’s death firmly now understand that viable, non-lethal alternative measures were available to satisfactorily deal with the situation presented at the time of Mr. Tucker’s death. It is the hope of the family that the Sheriff’s Department now understands and appreciates that the use of physical force against an inmate should be the last alternative when numerous, non-violent measures are equally available. In this incident, the involved deputies quickly responded to a call for additional deputies to Mr. Tucker’s cell module, then without ever having previously dealt with inmate Tucker, knowing his physical or mental health or even understanding the nature of the matter that they were called to, the deputies nevertheless immediately applied physical force via pepper spray to Mr. Tucker’s face, eyes and mouth, by a lethal carotid hold that caused extreme trauma to Mr. Tucker’s neck musculature, veins and arteries, by multi-person takedown by six (6) deputies with all of their weight being placed upon Mr. Tucker’s back, legs and head, by the application of a spit sock over Mr. Tucker’s head, face and mouth when there was no indication that Mr. Tucker was going to spit toward the deputies, and culminating with the application of arm and leg restraints while Mr. Tucker was held prone for over ten (10) minutes until the time when he was observed to be blue and cyanotic and emergency medical responders were called.
The family believes that the Sheriff’s Office has learned absent perceived imminent danger to someone, deputies should first assess a situation, learn what they can about the inmate, and then attempt any of the numerous non-lethal measures that deputies are taught in basic training and in continuing education. The family further believes that the department understands that a situation such as that with Mr. Tucker, a seriously mentally challenged individual with numerous physical illnesses such as asthma, blindness and hearing difficulties, requires special attention to achieve the desired outcome of compliance without violence or injury to a deputy or an inmate. The situation with Mr. Tucker could have been effectively handled with time, with strict instructions from the deputies to Mr. Tucker to obey commands and only if needed, afterwards with other non-violent measures.
The family further believes that department policy will change as it relates to the inner-department investigation of in-custody deaths. The San Diego Sheriff’s Department’s rules mandate that all in-custody death and all incidents involving the use of physical force require each involved deputy to immediately submit a narrative of that deputy’s personal involvement. In the discovery into this matter it was learned that all of the involved deputies, prior to preparing their individual narratives, first met together in the Shift Commander’s Office and discussed the situation. It was further learned that the involved deputies also watched jail surveillance video of the incident and discussed the same with each other and their superiors. Following this meeting with the Shift Commander, the deputies then submitted their own individual narratives to the Shift Commander who, in turn, suggested revisions to each deputy. We believe that the department now understands and appreciates that an investigation, in order to be credible, must be based upon individual, and not collective, recollections.
The family lastly believes that the flow of information to families of involved inmates should proceed without interruption or delay. In this matter, the family was not told that the death of Tommy Tucker was as the result of an altercation with deputies until approximately 1 1/2 years following Mr. Tucker’s death. The family was told, instead, that their loved one died in jail and that information could not be released until their investigation was complete. By the delay of the County of San Diego in releasing critical information to the family of the nature of Mr. Tucker’s death, legal avenues such a Wrongful Death action under California law were lost due to the passage of the statute of limitations. Consequently, the family was left only with the federal action of Section 1983, an action with a much higher standard of proof favoring law enforcement. Hopefully, in the future the County will choose not to delay such release of critical information to families and allow a free field of play with victims of wrongful police activities.
The family truly mourns the loss of its loved one, but also hopes that in Tommy Tucker’s death, perhaps others will benefit now from changes in San Diego Sheriff’s Department policy.