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September 21, 2004
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Police Train Intensely on Proper Use of Force; Recent Death Puts Spotlight on How Akron, Ohio Officers Respond to Violent Prisoners

By Andale Gross, Beacon Journal

Akron, OH - Police officers spend hours preparing for incidents they hope never happen: encounters with out-of-control suspects that can turn deadly.

That happened Aug. 24 when a police struggle with a 47-year-old Kenmore resident ended with the man dying.

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Solomon Dandridge, who was in the street yelling and acting irrationally, lost consciousness as four officers tried to get him under control and handcuffed. The death remains under investigation.

"Sometimes, despite the best intentions and best actions of highly trained and knowledgeable officers, an in-custody death can occur," said Akron officer Kevin Davis, the department''s use-of-force expert and an instructor in the police training bureau.

Akron police go through intensive use-of-force training. Officers are trained when they join the force and retrained each year after that.

Samuel Walker, criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said police departments need thorough training and a system of evaluating the techniques that officers use.

"Some departments are making much more serious efforts to bring the problems of inappropriate force and excessive force under control," Walker said. "There are many strategies out there. There are options such as using less-than-lethal weapons."

Such weapons are not "foolproof," Walker acknowledged. "But it''s good we''re encouraging officers to use them," he said. "That''s progress."

In Akron, officers carry pepper spray and batons along with their guns. A growing number of officers are being trained to use Air Tasers, Davis said.

"These (nonlethal) devices reduce officer injuries and suspect injuries," he said. "But keep in mind, we have had suspects fail to stop when sprayed or shot with the Taser."

The officers who struggled with Dandridge weren''t equipped with Tasers, detectives said.

Use of force; frequency

Davis reviews about 250 use-of-force incidents each year. The department records an incident as ``use of force'''' whenever an officer uses pepper spray or physical force or a suspect complains of injury, he said.

Overall, incidents involving force make up less than 2 percent of Akron police incidents, Davis added.

Although no cause of death has been determined in the Dandridge incident, some have compared the struggle to two other Akron police incidents from recent years.

In 1997, 26-year-old Daniel Hall died after struggling with an off-duty Akron police officer and passers-by on state Route 8. Hall had crashed into three cars and a median, jumped from his car and run through traffic. He leapt onto the hoods of stopped vehicles and yelled for police.

Hall went limp after being pinned to the ground.

The officer was found to have violated no laws or police procedures. Medical examiner''s officials found that Hall died because of stress to his heart, caused by doses of sinus medication and LSD and all the energy he expended during the incident.

Partial asphyxia from being pinned to the pavement and a damaged carotid artery from his necklace being yanked too hard also played a role, officials said.

In 2000, 40-year-old Larry Hoefel died after a struggle with police at a housing complex on Brittain Road. Officers were arresting the mentally disabled man for reportedly harassing tenants.

An autopsy found that he died of a heart attack. An investigation showed that the officers acted properly.

Officers who encounter uncooperative people are in a tough situation because they have no control over the person''s behavior, Davis said. When drugs or mental problems are part of the mix, the situations can be more unpredictable, he said.

Akron has officers who are trained to deal with mentally ill suspects.

In Dandridge''s case, his family members say they did not know him to have any medical problems -- physical or mental. He had however, been arrested in June for running in the street naked.

The final medical examiner''s report will include toxicology test results.

When suspects resist

The more a suspect resists, the more force officers are allowed to use, Davis said.

"The most common type of resistance that police officers encounter today is when a suspect tries to pull away or escape," he said. "Unfortunately, with that, police officers and suspects can be hurt unless it''s handled right."

Akron officers are taught to use verbal commands before getting physical. If a struggle does come, they are trained to end the fight as quickly as possible using proper force.

"The longer you draw things out, the worse it can be for both the officer and suspect," Davis said.

Officers are allowed to escalate their force one level higher than a suspect''s resistance, he said.

"If a person gets in a fighting stance and balls their fists, an officer doesn''t have to wait until the person throws a punch to use the baton," he said.

In most cases, police don''t want to use force, Davis said.

"We try to resolve a situation without having to resort to physical force," he said. "The longer you do this, you understand that the best use of force is the one that never happens."



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