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Arbitrator Overturns Correctional Officer’s 30-Day Suspension

Posted on Thursday, February 01, 2007 at 12:00PM
Posted by Paul Q. Goyette

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.

The Inmate’s Resistance in the Booking Area

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.

Inmate Escapes from Restraints

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.

Officers Enter the Medical Housing Unit Cell

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 Investigation

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.

Officer Griggs’ Use of Force was Reasonable

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.

Officer Griggs Did Not Violate the Department’s Use of Force Policy

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 Inmate’s Cause of Death

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.

The Arbitrator’s Award

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.

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