Arbitrator Catherine Harris overturned the 30-day suspension imposed against Correctional Officer Michael Griggs by the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department for his role in the death of inmate Montez Denmon on September 5, 2003 in the San Joaquin County Jail. The in-custody death of Denmon led to numerous legal actions, starting with an unprecedented open and public Grand Jury hearing, the criminal prosecution and acquittal of Officer Greg Fuhrer, the demotion of a sergeant and the suspension of Officer Griggs. Officer Fuhrer was also terminated. His appeal is still pending.
On September 5, 2003, Denmon was arrested by the Stockton Police Department and charged with domestic violence. When Denmon arrived at the jail, the case was reviewed by a classification officer and it was determined that, due to his criminal history, he would be placed in a holding cell and then transported to the administrative segregation section of the jail.
While he was being processed in the booking area, Denmon became immediately argumentative and combative. While in the holding cell, he began banging on the door of his cell and yelling, “Tell that bitch (referring to the victim of the alleged assault) when I get out of here, I’m going to kill her.” At the same time, the inmate was screaming at other inmates and staff to, “…call his people…because something was going to go down…he was not going out like this.”
Officers made numerous efforts to calm Denmon, but his behavior continued unabated. The inmate next flooded the holding cell, and covered the window with wet toilet paper to obscure the view of officers who were observing him. At the same time, he yelled, “Bring the boys. You’re not going to take me there. I’m not going to the hole.”
Two correctional officers and a correctional sergeant entered the booking cell and deployed pepper spray in an effort to get the inmate under control. The officers forcibly extracted Denmon from the cell by dragging him out by his feet. The inmate tried to get up and disobeyed direct orders to stay down. To control the inmate, one officer, who weighed 380 pounds, applied his full body weight to the inmate. The inmate, who was about 6′ 2″ tall, 240 pounds, was able to lift this officer off the floor. Officers were finally able to gain control of the inmate and he was placed in a mobile restraint chair. Medical staff ordered the inmate be taken to the medical housing unit and placed on a five-point restraint bed.
Before Officer Griggs ever became involved, the inmate slipped or broke free from his restraints at least three times. Each time, officers would enter the medical housing cell and re-restrain Denmon. On the last occasion, Denmon was able to break the heavy-duty leather restraint from his waist area. Numerous officers testified that they had never seen an inmate break the leather waist restraint. Each officer testified that they feared for their safety when they saw him exhibit such extraordinary strength.
After Denmon broke free from some of his restraints the final time, a number of officers and deputies were called to the medical housing unit, including Griggs. When Griggs arrived, he observed the inmate break the leather waist restraint and break free from one of his hand restraints. The officers decided that if they did not immediately enter the cell and gain control of the inmate he would become free of the five-point restraint and bed and would be much more dangerous and difficult to subdue. Approximately nine officers and deputies entered the cell and each went to a different location on the inmate to try to get him under control. The inmate violently pushed off the restraint bed. Griggs went to the inmate’s head area and tried to hold the inmate’s head to keep him from biting other staff members. Griggs also tried pain compliance hold by applying pressure behind the inmate’s ear. This effort proved to be totally ineffective. Throughout the incident the inmate was screaming and yelling at the staff members and disobeying their repeated commands to stop fighting.
With the inmate still out of control, Griggs climbed on top of the inmate and stood on his upper back area with both feet. Griggs testified that he did this to try to prevent the inmate from getting up on his hands and knees. At the time the inmate was lifting his body up and shifting his weight back toward his knees. Griggs was afraid that he would be able to gain additional leverage and break free from additional restraints. All of this was occurring while several officers and deputies holding or applying body weight to different parts of the inmate.
While Griggs was standing on the inmate’s back, the inmate pressed him up towards the ceiling. Griggs responded by pushing off the ceiling, applying additional force on the inmate’s back. He continued his efforts to get the inmate back on the five-point restraint bed for up to one minute. Then, suddenly, the inmate went limp. Griggs immediately climbed down from the inmate’s back. He testified that at this point he thought an officer had successfully applied a carotid restraint on the inmate. After about 30-to-60 seconds, the inmate regained consciousness and began fighting again. At this point Griggs attempted to restrain the inmate’s legs while other staff members grabbed other body parts of the inmate. After approximately another 60 seconds of fighting the inmate suddenly stopped resisting again and went limp.
Officers called paramedics who arrived within seconds. The paramedics were unable to revive inmate Denmon in the cell. The paramedics transported Denmon to the hospital where he was later pronounced dead. The county coroner declared that the cause of death was positional or restraint asphyxiation.
The department immediately started its’ investigation. Numerous correctional officers and deputies were named as either witnesses or subjects. The department concluded that Griggs used excessive force on Denmon by standing on the inmate’s back, which was inherently dangerous and made it difficult for the inmate to breathe. The department concluded the inmate died of positional asphyxiation and acknowledged that the death of the inmate contributed to its decision to take disciplinary action against Griggs and other staff members. The department concluded that Griggs had other options in his efforts to restrain Denmon and should not have stood on the inmate’s back.
The arbitrator concluded that Griggs’ use of force was reasonable. Griggs reasonably perceived Denmon to be one of the most dangerous and violent inmates he had dealt with. Denmon had repeatedly broke out of his restraints and exhibited extraordinary strength when fighting with the officers. Over the course of the afternoon, officers and deputies took numerous measures to control the inmate, including efforts to establish a rapport with him, pepper spray, control holds, and pain compliance. Nevertheless, the inmate remained unpredictable and dangerous.
Denmon broke his leather waist restraint while attempting to break out of the five-point restraint bed while in the Medical Housing Unit. Numerous officers and deputies testified that they had never seen an inmate actually break the thick, leather waist restraint. All staff members testified that they feared for their safety in dealing with Denmon.
The department alleged that Griggs’ use of force was excessive and therefore, in violation of the department’s use of force policy when he stood on Denmon’s back. Despite the department’s allegations, the use of force policy does not prohibit officers from standing or jumping on an inmate to get him under control. The arbitrator followed well-established law that an officer may use reasonable force based on the circumstances that face him or her at the moment in time they decide to use force. Further, the arbitrator found the analysis of whether an officer’s use of force was reasonable must be judged from the perspective of Griggs at the moment he decided to use force.
Officer Griggs had very few options dealing with Denmon. The arbitrator found that Griggs’ conduct was within his training, was within the department’s use of force policy, and was a perfectly reasonable use of force.
The department and the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s office undoubtedly took action against officers and deputies based, in part, on their erroneous conclusion of the inmate’s cause of death. The department relied upon the coroner’s conclusion that Denmon died of positional asphyxiation. Beyond the coroner’s conclusion regarding the inmate’s cause of death, the department ignored recent and uncontraverted scientific studies that show positional or restrain asphyxia is a complete myth in the law enforcement context. In this case, despite the department’s contentions, Griggs’ weight on the inmate’s back did not sufficiently interfere with his ability to breath. In all likelihood, Denmon died of a heart arrhythmia that had nothing to do with the use of force action taken by Griggs, or any other officer or deputy.
Arbitrator Catherine Harris completely overturned the department’s disciplinary action. She ruled that Griggs should be made whole for any loss of wages, benefits and seniority attributable to the suspension. The arbitrator also ruled the negative performance evaluation that Griggs received as a result of this incident shall be rescinded.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Paul Q. Goyette is the managing partner of Goyette & Associates, Inc., who specialize in the representation of public safety employees and their associations in numerous types of legal matters.
PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.
- Yvonne Heuston ERS/SPPOA Supervisors
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Dear PORAC Legal Defense Fund, This email has been weighing on my heart and should have been sent a long time ago. However, time seems to move fast even though your life has been put on hold. I have been on administrative leave since December of 2012. In April of 2013, I was arrested for the performance of my duties. Since the administrative side this case has not been resolved, I won't be getting into specific details regarding my case. However, I will say that I never thought that my life would turned upside down by doing the job that I love, and doing it in a way that I had been trained. I have been in Law Enforcement for 10 years, and I have been paying my monthly dues all along. I never really understood how important paying dues might be for me, I just thought it was the "cost of business". After being arrested, I understood the real worth of that investment. Because of politics, my case was given the "full court press". On January 3rd of 2014, the case against me was dismissed. It took no less than 5 experts to convince the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office to request dismissal. The time, effort, and money that this case cost couldn't have been endured by me as the sole provider of a family of four. LDF was there, big time. The panel attorney's under LDF were the best in the business. In the uncertain time during the criminal process, I couldn't have imagined how much help they could be. What a relief to know that LDF had my back. I am used to defending those who can't defend themselves. That's my job. When I was defenseless, LDF and the attorneys assigned to my case were my advocates and defenders. I thank you. My criminal attorney said it best at the conclusion of my criminal case: "Adam and his family are thankful that they can now move forward. The evidence showing Sgt. Laird was innocent was overwhelming. The expert EPD hired said that the suspect was rising up when Sgt. Laird pushed him back to the ground. The two experts that the DA’s office hired said that the force was reasonable and appropriate. The defensive tactics instructor who trained Adam said he acted consistent with his training in apprehending a high risk suspect in a dangerous situation. In total, five separate police practices experts reviewed the case and unanimously said Sgt. Laird acted appropriately". "It is hard to imagine what it must be like to risk your life apprehending a known gang member only to be charged with using excessive force when the suspect stated that he did not even feel the contact at issue. It is simply bizarre that Sgt. Laird was ever charged with a crime". Thank you. My family and I will forever be grateful for your service, Sergeant Adam Laird
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My experience through dealing with this matter was horrific. Without the efforts of the LDF and more specifically [my representative], I would most certainly have fallen victim to a corrupt and unethical administration. The LDF has saved my career and brought me justice.
- Raymond Fisher Colorado State Patrol Assn
I have known for sometime that PORAC would provide the services I needed at the time I needed them. This is a professional competent organization prepared to handle the appropriate legal matters our officers face in today's environment.
- Brendan Dolan Milwaukee PA
Everything went very smooth and they handled everything! Thank you.
- Grace Castro AFGE Local 2455 – Laredo, TX
My representative was very kind and showed he cared when explaining what my legal rights were when dealing with an internal investigation.
- Clyde Williams San Diego Harbor POA
Thank you for all of the work related to my officer involved shooting case.
- Chris Moore Palo Alto POA
No Complaints. Great Resource.
- Kip RIngen Lake Co DSA
My LDF rep kept me well informed concerning the progress of my case. I was extremely satisfied with the service I received. Thanks.
- Gilbert Salazar Montebello POA
Can’t say enough. Both representatives that I had in 2016 were excellent. ( My attorney ) made himself available to me in late night hours, which made me feel comfortable and at ease. This program is essential to us in law enforcement.
- Billy Aldridge Chico POA
[My representative] was awesome! He provided an excellent explanation of the process and was very professional. This was my first IA in 11 years of LE and [my representative] did a great job of reassuring me that I had nothing to worry about. Thank you so much for all your help.
- Sean Tinney Berkeley PA
[My representative] was very attentive to my case and thorough with his investigation. I would request [him] again in the future.
- Steven Moorehouse Redding POA
You guys are Great! Very professional and well informed. THANK YOU!
- Juan Espinoza Fresno DSA
[My representative] did a great job. He is both thorough and well educated. I would use him again.
- James Beckman Miracosta College POA
Highly recommend this program for any LEO!
- Eric Olson Escondido POA
You guys did an amazing job! Thank you L.D.F. !
- William Burdette Newport Beach PMA
26 years and I have never needed a LDF rep, but the one time you need one, it was worth the fee’s paid.”
- Jason Walters Claremont POA
LDF was very informative and provided me with the direction on how to handle my case. I was very happy with LDF and their staff.
- Erick Gaunt Palos Verdes POA
- Paul Figueroa Oakland POA
LDF was there when I needed them!! In this litigious world, it's nice to know LDF has GREAT lawyers on our side who look out for us!! [My Representative] is a great attorney and a person I would trust in any circumstance!!!
- Jay Garacochea Culver City POA
[My representative] not only did he do a great job but he listened to my concerns. He did not force his views or game plan and we worked well w/ each other. We agreed on a goal and achieved it.
- Michael Sexton Manteca POA
[My representative] was awesome.
- Anthony Gregori Sonoma Co Jr College P O A
Excellent work and well worth it.
- Evelyn Hooks Shasta CO PPOA
Thank God for the L.D.F.
- Gregg Palmer San Joaquin Co Corr POA
Everything was explained very well prior to my questioning. I was not worried at all during the investigation. Very professional and a great asset to its members.
- Roman Fernandez Inglewood POA
My representatives were always well-prepared and organized for hearings and meetings. Their efforts, hard work and full support is truly appreciated.
- Korey Lankow Assn Highway Patrol of Arizona
Outstanding service from bottom-to-top.
- Jaime Kim Oakland POA
My rep did a good job. First we met and he explained that there might be culpability on my part but not nothing close to the allegations. I appreciated his honesty as we have all done things that can be taken out of context so it was important he told me to realize that.
- Robert Morales Rialto PBA
I was very pleased with the service I received
- Russell Wise Alameda POA
- Alfredo Hernandez El Centro POA
[My representative] was very attentive, [informative] and knowledgeable. He spoke very clearly and explained things in ways easy to understand. [He] made me feel like he truly cared about what was going on with this case and me. Not to mention [he] was funny and witty, traits which made him trustworthy and someone who would stand by me and other police officers.
- Tai Pena-Hornung Oakland POA
Those who foolishly feel LDF is not a valuable resource, do so only because they have not yet needed legal representation.
- Dwayne Sue Oakland POA
[My representative was] great! She kept me informed and was very professional. She would be my choice if I should need her services in the future! (But I hope I won't) Thanks!
- Scott Hamilton San Bernardino Co SEBA
Don't go to work without LDF!
- Christopher Wells Hollister POA
My rep was great.
- Jon Seabron Oceanside POA
[My Representative] was the best and if I ever need to call al lawyer again for anything, I'll be calling her.
- Marshall Henderson Vancouver Police Officers Guild
I have used LDF in 3 OIS's. Each time I have been very well taken care of. I highly recommend [ representative ] and the PORAC system. Well done and thank you.
- Keith Stiver Hayward POA
[My representative] brings a superlative reputation, a comforting and confidence building demeanor and a clear expertise to the table. In particular I appreciate her philosophy that she gives her total undivided attention to her clients during their appointments.
- Rich Stepper Montana PPA
[ My representative ] was very knowledgeable regarding dept & legal rules regarding officer involved shooting. Provided good legal advice & was very supportive.
- Shaun Luciano LA School PA
LDF assisted by taking a stressful situation and calmed it down by thoroughly explaining the entire process. It was nice to know that I had an ally when I was sure that I was alone.
- Daniel Smock Ventura County PPOA
Everything went smooth. I think the current system works very well.
- Patrick Davis Oakland POA
Very knowledgeable and thorough and would use the rep again.
- John Dougherty National City POA
My LDF Representative was [Representative]. He did an outanding job with my case and I am overjoyed with the results.
- Emery Eccle Culver City POA
LDF is THE most important asset / resource that police officers have. "Thank you" to all involved and keep up the good work!
- Patrick Beggs Fresno Co DSA
Good service. Thank you.
- Melvarene Hayes LA Airport POA
They were there when I needed them and my whole case was handled on the phone. I met my representative after my case closed and he was at our union meeting when I had the pleasure to meet him and thank him in person.
- Robin Gonzalez Yolo Co. DSA
[My representative was] very quick to respond, helpful and professional. Thank you!
- Dan McDow San Luis Obispo POA
[My representative] is the poster face representative of the greatest attorney (representative) that anyone could possibly ask for. She gets a 12 out of 10 star rating. Nobody works harder.
- Martha Tschetter Carson City Sheriffs PA
The LDF process was painless and I was able to get immediate representation in an urgent time of need. Thank you LDF
- Jack Ellis Lompoc POA
An excellent plan. Very valuable to its members.
- Juan Pascua, Jr. San Diego Co DSA
Very helpful and very informative!
- Greg Harman Kensington POA
[My representative] is the best!!
- Kevin Hullquist Siskiyou Co. Correctional POA
[My representative] did a good job representing me. Kept me informed.
- Jorge Garcia San Joaquin Co Corr Officers
No criticism to give. Very well.
- Shandon Murphy San Mateo POA
Great work! Thank you so much!
- Jeff Stanley Upland POA
Excellent program, no one should be without this coverage.
- Brent Teasley ERS/Reno PSAEA
[ My representative ] was bogged down with multiple cases when he represented me, but I feel he did an excellent job. I would not have wanted anyone else to represent me during a very troublesome time.
- Michael Kan Palo Alto POA
I have always been and will continue to be a strong supporter of LDF and would not work as a police officer without it. I am extremely happy with the service I have received both from LDF and [my representative].
- Robyn Delaney Mono County PSOA
[My Representative] truly is an exceptional attorney. He has always represented me with honesty and compassion. Well Done.
- William Jackson Santa Maria POA
Keep up the great work.
- Micheal Chad Heiser Santa Rosa POA
LDF is a valuable resource that no law enforcement officer should be without.
- Derwin Longmire Oakland POA
Outstanding [law firm] - incredible firm. And, LDF was easy to work and correspond with.
- William Pryor Statewide University PA
Very helpful program. Helped keep department personnel focused on the issue regardless of their personal issues.
- Craig Caches Fremont POA
I have only used LDF once for myself, which with the circumstance was great. I work with LDF in my assignment ( OIS investigator ) and after approximately 4-5 OIS's, I have great experiences with LDF.
- Ronald J. Danison El Monte POA
The LDF is a tool available to me which I hope never goes away. It makes me feel that much more confident to do my job knowing LDF has my back when police work gets ugly. And it usually does..
- Steven Moorehouse Redding POA
Thank you for your help.
- Heather Fontes San Joaquin Co POA
I appreciated the thorough follow up by LDF staff. Many thanks and blessings for the work by LDF.
- Tyler Robins Pasadena City College POA
At a time when no one cares about you it's nice to have someone on your side who does. (My attorney ) made a stressful six months a lot more tolerable.
- Steven E. Lopez Santa Maria POA
Keep up the Good Work! Your service was extremely helpful to me. Thank you.
- Cherie Rye Lyon Co SEA
I am very happy with the service I received from LDF. I am grateful that our association includes LDF as part of our dues.
- Kim Prout Upland Firefighters Assoc
It was great comfort to know somebody would be there for me in this matter. I was able to finally sleep @ night & wake up with confidence that I would be ok. Thanks.
- Paul Barrolaza Twin Cities POA
- Rachel Tyner Transit EOA of San Diego
All the LDF representatives were very courteous and attentive with a punctual response to all of my concerns, inquiries and appointment scheduling. My representative was very informative about the legalities and kept in contact with me regularly. He was also very patient and straight forward. I would definitely want to use the LDF again and felt more confident through my proceedings because I had representation!
- George Fierro El Monte POA
I am a firm believer that LDF serves an essential part in the assistance to protect an officer's POBR & in the integrity of an investigation or complaint. I highly recommend the law office of [My Represenative].
- Dennis Leach National City POA
[My Representative] is a knowledgeable attorney and I would highly recommend him to anyone needing representation.
- Stephen Woodward Palm Springs POA
Great job by my LDF lawyer. I have had to use them several times over my 20 year career and their service is invaluable.
- Kelly K. Roe San Joaquin Co Corr Officers
[My representative] did a fantastic job at returning my phone calls and keeping me informed of any and all information pertaining to my case. I would recommend him to anyone.