Another Pasadena police scandal of the recent past returned to the headlines last weekend after officials announced the city will pay a $1.5 million out-of-court settlement to the family of a man who died during a violent encounter with officers.
Reginald Thomas Jr. died Sept. 30, 2016 following a violent altercation with Pasadena police officers in an apartment in the 200 block of Orange Grove Boulevard in Northwest Pasadena.
The event, which began with one of Thomas’ children calling 911 reporting his father’s erratic behavior, sparked two nights of protests and candlelit vigils, with hundreds of people marching from the apartment complex to City Hall about 15 hours after the early morning incident.
“The city and its officers do not admit liability or fault in the matter,” said Interim Public Information Officer Lisa Derderian in a prepared statement.
The City Council unanimously approved the settlement in closed session on March 26. However, no announcement was made in open session as the final details of the settlement were not worked out at the time. The settlement is subject to court approval.
Officers Thomas Butler, Robert Griffith, Michael Orosco, Philip Poirier, Raphael Santiago and Aaron Villacana were named in the lawsuit.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Justice System Integrity Division ruled that the officers used reasonable force in subduing Thomas.
According to court documents, four of six officers — Villacana, Santiago, Poirier and Orosco — invoked their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent during depositions conducted in November.
In an article appearing on the online news site Pasadena Now, civil rights attorney Caree Harper said that her clients “breathed a sigh of relief” at the settlement “because they would not have to relive that fateful night and they could finally move on with their lives.”
The violent altercation began after police responded to 911 calls coming from an apartment on Orange Grove Boulevard. When they arrived, Thomas was holding a fire extinguisher and a long knife under his armpit. Thomas’ girlfriend and four children were in the home.
According to court documents obtained by the Pasadena Weekly, Thomas was repeatedly shocked with Taser darts, struck with police batons and punched and kicked in the head.
“It is important to note that autopsy reports uncovered trauma to Mr. Thomas’ head which appears consistent with blows or kicks to Mr. Thomas’ head,” said Roger Clark, a police procedure consultant who analyzed the case for Harper.
After he was placed in a hobble restraint, officers noticed Thomas had stopped breathing.
A hobble restraint is when handcuffs are used to connect wrist and ankle restraints from behind. The technique has been controversial for decades and many departments have banned its use.
In 1993, Pasadena barber Michael Bryant died after being electrocuted with Taser darts while standing in a swimming pool. Bryant had led officers from LA, Pasadena and San Marino on a chase to Highland Park before leaving his car, running up a hill, jumping into a swimming pool and then being surrounded by officers while standing waist-deep in the water.
After he was Tasered and taken into custody, he was placed in a similar restraint and placed face down in a police car where he suffocated. Bryant, who was overweight, died as a result of positional asphyxiation due to cocaine intoxication and being placed face down in the back seat of a squad car.
In 2016, Los Angeles city officials paid $1.8 million to the family of a homeless man who suffered a heart attack. The man did not die but suffered brain damage after being hobbled.
The Austin American-Statesman in Texas found that hobbling contributed to eight deaths in that state between 2005 and 2016. The restraint technique is now banned in Austin.
Pasadena city officials claim being pierced by multiple Taser darts and hobbled did not lead to Thomas’ death.
“Expert investigators determined that Thomas’ death was not caused by the use of force by police in their efforts to restrain him, but rather by Thomas’ ingestion of lethal levels of illegal narcotics, including PCP and methamphetamine, which had caused his erratic behavior,” according to the city’s official statement.
The city did not list the name of those experts.
Clark claims that physical exertion and drug use are contributing factors to asphyxiation deaths after a suspect has been hobbled.
After news of Thomas’ death leaked out hours after the Sept. 30, 2016 incident, dozens of angry people congregated on Orange Grove Boulevard.
City officials did not release a statement until 1 p.m. that day — nearly 10 hours after Thomas died in custody.
The case was quickly taken over by the LASD, which moved the investigation out of Pasadena. The day after the incident, deputies held a press conference at 8:30 a.m. in Los Angeles, angering local residents who claimed the event should have been held in Pasadena.
City officials have retained the Washington DC-based nonprofit Police Foundation to conduct an independent review of the incident. On its website, the group says its purpose is to help the police be more effective in doing its job.
The LASD review of the officers’ actions is ongoing.
The department has been mired in controversy since the Thomas incident.
In November, cell phone footage surfaced of two Pasadena police officers striking motorist Christopher Ballew with their fists and a police baton during a traffic stop at a gas station just outside the Pasadena border with Altadena.
City Manager Steve Mermell ordered the release of footage captured by the officers’ body worn cameras and their police cruiser. That footage did not stem the tide of outrage regarding the incident.
Despite months of outrage, Police Chief Phillip Sanchez did not take officers Lerry Esparza and Zachary Lujan off the streets until March.
Less than a year prior to that, Lt. Vasken Gourdikian was placed on administrative leave with pay after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) began investigating him for allegedly selling guns illegally. Like Thomas, the city said very little about the investigation. Gourdikian was indicted last month and resigned from the force.
Sanchez also decided to leave the department last month, announcing his last day on the job is April 18. Cmdr. John Perez will serve as interim chief until a full-time replacement is found.
After Gourdikian was indicted, Mermell shocked City Council members after he revealed that a second police officer was also under investigation by the ATF for allegedly selling guns illegally. It was not immediately known why the information was not revealed during the year-long investigation leading up to Gourdikian’s indictment.