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.
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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.
- Adam Laird Eureka POA
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
- 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
- Brian Schopf Elk Grove POA
Keep up the good work.
- David Baker Placerville POA
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.
- Steven Curtiss Shasta Co DSA
This was my first need for LDF support and I was very happy with the level of service. Thank you.
- Kenneth S. Blonski East Bay Regional Parks PMA
I was very pleased with my representative.
- Paul Spencer Santa Paula POA
[My Representative] was great!
- Michael Shephard Suisun City POA
LDF is a very valuable resource. I would not do this job without it.
- Kim Jasper Alhambra POA
Excellent service, prompt and courteous.
- Ken Burbank Shasta Co DSA
[ My representative ] was professional, articulate and prepared, but most importantly he understood the emotional impact the investigation was having on me as a person and peace officer. I highly recommend [my representative].
- Gerhard Wallace Santa Clara Co DSA
I think that [my representative] did a great job in presenting my case. I would recommend her to any deputy (officer) facing disciplinary action. My case was minor compared to other cases but [she] still did a professional job.
- Nicholas Ward Antioch POA
[ Representative ] did a great job. My case was extremely complicated and difficult. She did a great job.
- Christopher Wells Hollister POA
My rep was great.
- Robin Gonzalez Yolo Co. DSA
[My representative was] very quick to respond, helpful and professional. Thank you!
- 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.
- Oliver Sansen Concord POA
In 14 years I have never had to deal with an "IA." [My representative] was wonderful & put my mind at ease throughout the entire process. 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.
- William Jackson Santa Maria POA
Keep up the great work.
- Paul Barrolaza Twin Cities POA
- Christopher Connally Assn of LEA
To whom it may concern: Let me start by saying how much I appreciate the opportunity to join the PORAC Legal Defense Fund. This is a great benefit for our membership. During the past twelve months I was fortunate to have access to the Legal Defense Fund through MPCA. Earlier this year I was both surprise, and disappointed, when realized that I needed to provide counsel to mediate pending litigation. In accessing the Legal Defense Fund I found your staff to be very professional and reassuring. The staff felt that [my representative]., would be the best ft for the situation. I would like to take the opportunity to express my appreciation for being represented by [Rick Barry]. Not only was he a good fit for the circumstances, at times it seemed as if he was the only attorney out of several involved that really had a grasp on the issues. Again, I would like to thank the PORAC staff, and know that I could not have been better served than by what was provided by [my representative].
- Roy Iler San Benito CO LEM
[My representative] always returned phone calls and let me know if he was contacted with information.
- Chad Sakamoto National City POA
Although this incident was unfounded, it's still stressful. My LDF rep kept me informed and kept "work" at work.
- Christopher Wirth A F G E Border Patrol
LDF referred me to [ representative ] in Spokane, WA. [ Representative ] did an outstanding job representing me. Thank you very much for the referral ! I would not be employed any longer had it not been for [ representative ] and his legal team.”
- Allison Clark Twin Cities POA
[My representative] is the best attorney LDF has. Her attention to details, professionalism, and intelligence were off the charts. If I did not have her as a rep I would probably be out of a job. She is fair and she was honestly concerned about me, my family and my case.
- Ernest Marugg San Diego Deputy DA Association
The LDF responded immediately upon my request for counsel. LDF provided the best representative I could receive! When I called LDF for advice, I was given advice again immediately. Thank you LDF for your concern.
- Gary Silva East Bay Region Parks POA
Thank you for providing this service. My experience with LDF was very much to my satisfaction.
- Wendy Morrow Chico Public Safety Association
I had never been through an I.A. in my 21 years. I was scared and ashamed and humiliated. ( My attorney ) was excellent. He helped me through one of the worst times of my life. Had great outcome and I am grateful.
- Kevin Hullquist Siskiyou Co. Correctional POA
[My representative] did a good job representing me. Kept me informed.
- Gary J. Foppiano Oakland POA
[My representative] has been in my corner for 28 years. I have been represented by this firm probably 6 times in my career from minor to major discipline cases with a great outcome for me. They're batting 100%
- Marco Flores Ventura County PPOA
Great program. I was lost until the attorneys explained the situation. I was very impressed and satisfied. Thanks LDF.
- Jeff Stanley Upland POA
Excellent representation. [My representative] is a great attorney.
- German Alvarez Anaheim PA
[My representative ] was great!
- 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.
- Robert Curato Anderson POA
He did a great job for me!!! He always returned my phone calls within 24-hours. He showed an interest in my case and we were able to get the issue resolved in less than 45 minutes. Thank you for being there when I needed the legal assistance.
- Phillip Flores Oxnard POA
My attorney was excellent. I would use her again.
- Robert Hartman Contra Costa Co DSA
Quick response, experienced and knowledgeable attorney which assisted in every step. [My representative] kept me apprised through the process. Thank you.
- Nicholas Belliveau Sebastopol POA
High quality service, proficient, well informed. Overall, very happy with experience.
- 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.
- 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.
- Gina Reyes Broadmoor POA
[My representative] was wonderful! Even though my situation didn't end in my favor, he was very supportive, informative & patient. He always answered every email in a timely fashion and was very accessible. I appreciated everything he was able to do for me.
- Rachael Van Sloten Oakland POA
LDF is absolutely essential to help make a system that is somewhat broken work more effectively. [My Representative] is excellent and takes a great deal of time to lisen and represent.
- Brad Young Oakland POA
[My representative] is an excellent attorney and I am very happy he picks up the phone and answers my questions whenever possible.
- Andrew J. Brice Santa Maria POA
As always... an excellent result.
- 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].
- Rodney Kirkland Oakland POA
Being a police officer in the city of Oakland, I appreciate the services that are offered.
- Carl Miller Clearlake POA
- 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.
- Scott Hamilton San Bernardino Co SEBA
Don't go to work without LDF!
- Scot Hicks Humbolt County DSO
My experience was made much less stressful thanks to the LDF representation.
- James Walker Yakima Police Patrolsman Assn
This attorney and her legal team were one of the best I’ve seen and interacted with. I was always in the loop and constantly updated on the case status. I would use (my attorney) again if the need came and recommend her to anyone.
- 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.
- Jack Ellis Lompoc POA
An excellent plan. Very valuable to its members.
- Melissa Geraci Oakland POA
This is my 1st time using LDF and was very pleased with the service I got. [My representative] was so friendly & always returned my calls & even called to update me without provocation.
- David Heller Yolo County DSA
The charges against me, if sustained, would have likely ended my LE career. I was rightfully exonerated on all charges. I was well represented by [My Representative] and thank him for a job well done!!
- John Tinder Chino POA
Having an LDF attorney who is experienced, knowledgeable and professional is an outstanding quality. [My representative ]exhibit all of these qualities and more. They are outstanding and I would not entrust my career to anyone else!
- Christine Farmer Tehama Co DSA
Mine was a fairly simple situation and I may not have needed representative. I am glad I called for help, it gave me peace of mind and reassurance.
- 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.
- James F. Beland Lake County SDA
- Eric White Emeryville POA
Very satisfied with the LDF services provided. Thank you.
- Omar Daza-Quiroz Oakland POA
I have had (2) two cases in which LDF represented me. Both lawyers were exceptionally professional, intelligent and caring for me. They were friendly and very helpful.
- Steven Mayorga Ventura County DSA
I was well represented and very glad to have LDF. Thank you.
- Matthew Gardner Colorado PPA
I would not want to be an officer without this coverage. It was great to have it and kept my mind at ease.
- Stephanie Haas Lyon Co SEA
When I first contacted LDF re: my case I was unsure of how well/poor I'd actually be represented. I was impressed beyond belief. From the timely responses from my attorney, his knowledge in my case, advising me what my rights were and where I stood. I felt like I was genuinely being protected from unwarranted and unfounded accusations and believe, as long as I am in the right, I have someone fighting for me. Thank you, Thank you.
- Steven Moorehouse Redding POA
Thank you for your help.
- Michael Sexton Manteca POA
[My representative] was awesome.