Ramel Henderson's death didn't get much attention--there was no press release from the San Diego Police Department and only a small write-up in the Union-Tribune. Because the 51-year-old died after an altercation with police, there are no detectives or prosecutors working with his family to get to the bottom of what happened. Ramel's father Ocie, a 75-year-old retired postal worker who lives in L.A., has taken it upon himself to figure out how and why his son died, but he's come up against the protective California laws that dictate the release of law-enforcement records.
Ocie's met with San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne and talked to as many law-enforcement personnel as will take his calls. Still, like most families in his situation, he feels like he's not getting the full story.
'Each time I get a version of it, it's different than the other one,' he said. He's been told that because District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis' office is reviewing Ramel's death--standard procedure in officer-involved homicides--some of the information he's requested is currently part of an ongoing investigation and won't be released until Dumanis finishes her review. And, even then, if the experience of reporters, open-records advocates and other families indicates anything, obtaining many of those records will require a lawsuit.
Last month, Ocie sent a letter to Lansdowne: 'If the police did nothing wrong,' he wrote, 'why must I suffer the pangs of not knowing what happened to my son?'
Ramel's autopsy report, which includes a summary of events provided to the medical examiner by a police detective, is the only detailed record Ocie has obtained.
According the report, at around 8:30 p.m. on May 29, Ramel's girlfriend, Rolanda Stuart, called 911, saying he'd thrown a bottle at her and pushed the couple's 5-year-old son (Ocie disputes this, saying that a friend of Ramel who left after Stuart placed the 911 call, told him neither of those things happened). Two police officers arrived and asked Ramel to take a seat on a couch. Initially he complied, but then, according to the medical examiner's report, he got up and started walking toward Stuart. When an officer put out his hand to stop him, Ramel, the report says, pushed the officer, telling him, 'Don't touch me.' When officers tried to handcuff him, 'a struggle ensued,' the report says.
At some point, more officers arrived and the decision was made to use 'maximum restraint' or, in cruder terms, hog-tie Ramel. Officers got him handcuffed and on his stomach, first on a couch and then on the floor; one officer, according to the report, had 'his right knee between the decedent's shoulder blades and his left knee on the decedent's right arm.' It took two attempts to apply the waist and ankle straps--officers didn't apply them correctly the first time. Partway through the second attempt, they noticed Ramel had stopped breathing and had no pulse.
They removed the handcuffs, started CPR and called paramedics. Emergency-room doctors at Paradise Valley Hospital got Ramel's heart started, but several hours later, he went into cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead early the next morning.
The cause of death is listed as complications resulting from lack of oxygen to the brain, though Medical Examiner Steven Campman found 'no evidence... that there was sufficient chest or abdomen compression to cause suffocation.'
Ramel, who was 5-foot-6 and 199 pounds, showed signs of heart disease--such that could cause sudden death, Campman found--another point that Ocie, who went over the autopsy with a surgeon friend, questions. He hired a private pathologist to oversee the autopsy and is waiting for his report. Ramel also tested positive for cocaine and THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) and had a blood-alcohol level of .08.
The autopsy also details a number of injuries Ramel sustained, including a dislocated shoulder, a lacerated liver, 10 fractured ribs (attributed in the report to CPR) and 'multiple blunt-force injuries,' including contusions and lacerations from handcuffs and restraint straps, as well as the force used to pin him down.
Ocie has been unable to find out how many officers were on the scene or how many were involved in trying to restrain his son. He said he's having a hard time reconciling what police are telling him about Ramel.
'I've taught and trained him to cooperate with the police,' he said. 'He would never get into an altercation with the police because there's no win--there's no win whatsoever.'
Mike Marrinan, an attorney who specializes in civil cases involving officer-involved homicides but is not involved in Ramel's case, said hog-tying is considered 'controversial' because it can result in what's known as positional asphyxia, especially when an overweight individual is forced onto his stomach. Compounding this is the fact that a police officer was using his body weight to keep Ramel pinned down.
'It is absolutely inappropriate for [an officer] to be kneeing him in the back if they're hog-tying him because he can't breath,' Marrinan said.
The police department's own procedural guidelines say that maximum restraint should be used 'as a last resort' after officers have considered 'lesser force options, such as OC [pepper] spray.' And, while restraints are being applied, the guidelines say, a subject should be 'rolled onto his/her side,' to prevent suffocation. The medical examiner's report says that Ramel was on his stomach the entire time, and there's no mention of pepper spray.
'Their tactics,' Ocie said, 'it just seems unnecessary. And for him to end up with a dislocated shoulder, fractured ribs, busted lip, bruised back, bruised legs. I mean, that's indication of a beating.'
Before year's end, Dumanis will release a summary of her office's review of the case, something the DA does for any officer-involved homicide to determine whether officers are criminally liable. Lansdowne said he couldn't discuss the case until Dumanis completes her review.
The city of San Diego's Citizens Review Board on Police Practices will also review the incident, but because of a 2002 lawsuit brought by the San Diego Police Officers Association, the citizen's review board releases only the most cursory of annual reports with nothing that identifies the cases they've reviewed or an explanation as to how they arrived at their conclusions. In its most recent report, covering all of 2005, the review board agreed with the conclusion of every investigation of a citizen complaint conducted by San Diego Police Department's internal-affairs unit. When it came to allegations of significant misconduct--excessive use of force, discrimination, criminal conduct and slurs--in 2005, San Diego police officers didn't break any rules. As for lesser complaints, only 11 out of 90 were found to have merit. What any of these cases involved, the public will never know.
Merrick Bobb, who heads the Police Assessment Resource Center, an L.A.-based organization that assists law-enforcement agencies in oversight protocol, said that though one shouldn't assume that a law-enforcement agency can't fairly police itself, a transparent system of oversight is key.
'There should be an external evaluation of those investigations to assure that they're indeed thorough and fair,' Bobb said. 'Transparency enhances accountability and leads to better policies and practices.'
Lansdowne told CityBeat that after Dumanis concludes her reviews of officer-involved homicides, he meets with family members to go over the case and shares with them whatever his department provided to the DA. Ocie, however, said that neither during his meeting with Lansdowne nor in any of his discussions with other police personnel about Ramel's death was he told that he could meet with the police chief a second time and review some of the information he's been requesting.
Two San Diego attorneys contacted by CityBeat who've represented families of officer-involved homicide victims in civil lawsuits said none of their clients were offered such a meeting.
'I've never heard of him doing that,' said Marrinan, who's currently representing the family of Jacob Faust, a 25-year-old who was shot and killed by a San Diego police officer in April 2005. 'But maybe he has,' he added, 'but I bet he hasn't done it in every case--I know he hasn't done it in every case.'
Jerry Singleton, another San Diego attorney, echoed what Marrinan said. Singleton's representing the family of Michael Kreca, who was killed by a San Diego cop in February 2006 after the officer thought Kreca was going to pull a gun on his partner. 'We had to file a suit to get the information,' Singleton said. 'Chief Lansdowne certainly hasn't met with [Kreca's family].'
'Mr. Henderson ought to take him up on that,' Marrinan said. 'He ought to call him up and make an appointment, sit down and say, 'I want a copy of everything that was given to the DA.''
Through a spokesperson, CityBeat sent Lansdowne questions asking whether the follow-up meetings are a new department policy, how many of these meetings have happened and whether he'd make public any information he shares with victims' families. As of press time, he had not responded.