Story last updated at 9:11 PM on Thursday, April 24, 2008

Homer jail guard investigated

Jailer choked suspect, report says; no charges filed

BY MICHAEL ARMSTRONG
STAFF WRITER

During processing of a prisoner arrested last May, an Alaska State Trooper and two Homer Police officers had to separate a jail guard from the prisoner, an Alaska State Trooper investigator wrote in a report released last week by the Alaska Department of Public Safety. The trooper report said the guard choked the prisoner while he was being booked on a charge of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest at the Homer Jail.

Homer Police Chief Mark Robl confirmed the incident happened, but, citing department policy, declined to identify the jail officer or the suspect or say if any disciplinary action was taken against the jailer.

The city of Homer conducted its own internal investigation and determined the jailer violated the Homer Police Use of Force Policy. Serious disciplinary action was taken against the jailer, said Homer City Manager Walt Wrede, but he did not specify the action.

"I feel like we dealt with it in an appropriate way," Wrede said. "We made it clear that kind of behavior is not acceptable to the police department of the city of Homer. I was satisfied with the discipline that was handed out."

Investigator Mark Granda of the Alaska Bureau of Investigations, the author of the report, forwarded the case to the Alaska Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals for review of a charge of assault in the third degree, a class C felony.

No charges were returned against the guard. Robl said the jail officer still works as a guard for Homer Police.

The trooper report said the city suspended the jailer the night of the incident and while troopers did their investigation.

The incident came to the attention of the Homer News when an anonymous caller last month reported the alleged assault. The Department of Public Safety provided the Homer News with a redacted copy of its report after the paper filed an Open Records Request. The report identifies Granda, Trooper Derek Loop, the arresting officer, and Robl, but no other parties were named.

In the trooper report, Robl describes the jail guard as a former Homer Police officer with 22 years experience who retired in 1999. The officer has been working as a part-time jail guard since 2007.

Alaska State Troopers investigated the incident at Robl's request and after a trooper from the Anchor Point Post, E Detachment, who witnessed the incident, reported it to his supervisor. Because that trooper was a witness, the case was investigated by the Alaska Bureau of Investigation, Anchorage.

Based on interviews with the trooper who arrested the suspect, the suspect, another trooper at the jail, a dispatcher, a Homer Police officer, a police sergeant and the jail officer, ABI Investigator Granda gives this account:

At about 12:55 a.m. on May 28, Trooper Derek Loop took an Anchor Point man to the Homer Jail after arresting him for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The report identified Loop as the arresting officer, but did not name other police or troopers involved. Troopers arrested the man while investigating a 911 call and hang up made from his Anchor Point home. Troopers found no emergency, but when the man became belligerent, they arrested him.

The disorderly conduct charge was later dismissed, and the Anchor Point man pleaded no contest to resisting arrest and served 10 days in jail.

Loop told Granda he dropped off the suspect in the police booking room and left the room. While he stood in the hallway outside the booking room, a dispatcher on duty told him to get into the booking room. Loop went into the room and saw the jailer with both hands around the suspect's neck. He said the suspect's neck and face were turning red. Loop said the suspect blew and spat in the jailer's face, and the jailer said, "Nobody does that to me."

A police officer told Granda a similar story. He said the jailer had both arms straightened out and pushed against the suspect's throat. He said the suspect was still handcuffed. He said this was the first time he saw the jailer act like that. After thinking about the incident, he said he felt the jailer's use of force was inappropriate.

Another trooper at the jail said he had just finished booking another person for a driving under the influence charge. He heard from the jailer that Loop was bringing in a suspect who would take several people to handle. The trooper recognized the suspect from earlier arrests for domestic violence assault, resisting arrest and eluding police. He helped the jailer book the suspect.

The trooper said the suspect mouthed off when he was brought into the booking area. He said the jailer took off the right handcuff, but couldn't get the left handcuff off because of a piece of metal stuck in the keyhole. The trooper used a Leatherman tool to remove the metal. He was still working on the handcuff when the jailer grabbed the suspect's neck with both hands and shoved him against the wall. The jailer, the trooper and the suspect were all standing.

The trooper said he either stepped away or was pushed, and then yelled to the jailer, "Let him go, let him go." He said the suspect did not fight back, that he turned a dark purple-blue color, made a raspy sound and his tongue stuck out of his mouth. The suspect was put on a bench and handcuffed to a rail on the wall above it.

The trooper later called the Kenai District Attorney's office about the incident and was advised to report the incident to his supervisor.

A police officer at the station that night came into the booking room after the alleged assault. He told Granda he called a trooper sergeant about the incident.

Granda's report noted the booking room had videotape cameras, but no one had put a tape in the camera and recorded the incident. Police and troopers also did not have audio tape recorders running during the incident, although they turned on the recorders after the incident.

In an interview with Granda, the jailer said he did not feel he did anything wrong. He said when the trooper had trouble with the left handcuff, he kept a hold on the handcuffs so the suspect wouldn't use the handcuffs as a weapon. The suspect tried to pull his hand away from the jailer. When the suspect blew in his face, the jailer said he pushed him away at arm's length. After the suspect spat on him, the jailer said he reached up with his left hand to hold the suspect's neck and pushed him against the wall.

Robl told Granda Homer has a Use of Force policy that prohibits choke holds. Robl said when the jailer started working, he read the police department's jail and department policy manuals and signed a statement that he read the jail policy. Robl said the jailer was supposed to have sent Robl an e-mail saying he'd reviewed the department policy manual, but Robl could not find a copy of that e-mail.

The jailer told Granda he had reviewed the police department's policy and jail policy manual. He said he knows choke holds are not allowed, but said he did not do a choke hold on the suspect. The jailer defined a choke hold as getting behind the suspect and putting his neck between your arm and chest. The jailer told Granda he believed the suspect assaulted him and his use of force was justified.

The jailer told Granda he used force against the suspect because he spat in his face.

"My intent was not to be spit on again and to make sure he didn't get loose," the jailer told Granda.

A police officer interviewed by Granda said he understood choke holds could be done from either the front or the back by putting both hands on a person's neck until the passed out.

When interviewed, the suspect said his neck felt sore and he had headaches. He said he wanted to press charges against the jailer.

Wrede said there was debate among city investigators about what the jailer did.

"The city would take a dim view, a very dim view, of any type of prisoner abuse," Wrede said. "We also have an obligation to protect our officers as well. They have to be able to protect themselves."

Robl said the city's Use of Force policy establishes a continuum a series of increasingly aggressive steps to be followed.

"You can't use any force that's excessive to address the situation you're confronted with," Robl said.

Wrede reiterated that the incident violated city policies.

"We want the public to know this is not something we condone in any shape or form," he said.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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