Review says Mass. police did not cause Celtic fan's death
By Denise Lavoie
BOSTON — An independent investigation of the death of a Boston Celtics fan who stopped breathing while in police custody found that officers acted "reasonably" and did not contribute to the man's death, but also concluded that police made mistakes at the arrest scene that led to confusion, officials said Tuesday.
A report released by former U.S. Attorney Donald Stern accepted the findings of the state medical examiner, who concluded that David Woodman's death was brought on by a heart arrhythmia and that he died of natural causes.
But the report also found "any number of missteps" by police after they arrested Woodman on a public drinking charge on June 18, 2008, during the Celtics' championship celebrations. Woodman stopped breathing after his arrest after his arrest and died 11 days later.
"What we found was that some things were done right ... and some things were done wrong," Stern said at a news conference at police headquarters.
"There were some problems with how this was handled," Stern said.
Specifically, Stern said in the report, there was inadequate police supervision at the arrest scene, and it was unclear which officers were responsible for watching Woodman, 22, after he was placed under arrest until he showed signs of medical distress.
"It is likely, of course, that Mr. Woodman was being adequately watched during this time. But, since there was no fixed responsibility and accountability, it is hard to say so with certainty," Stern said in the report.
Stern said investigators do not believe that police contributed to Woodman's death.
"But, at the very least, it was a breakdown of police procedure and has added to the family's and the public's skepticism as to what transpired that evening," Stern said.
Police Commissioner Ed Davis said that after reviewing the report, he believes "that officers in no way could have foreseen or prevented Mr. Woodman's death."
"However, we will learn valuable lessons from this and will apply those lessons moving forward," he said.
Stern said officers placed Woodman on the ground, on his side, after his arrest, to comply with police guidelines on handling intoxicated people. He said investigators were unable to determine precisely how much time passed between the time they put Woodman on the ground and the time they realized he wasn't breathing, but he said he believes it was less than five minutes.
Davis said officers called for an ambulance and immediately began performing CPR on Woodman as soon as they realized he had stopped breathing.
"The officers did what they could," he said.
Stern made a series of recommendations, including that police be given additional training controlling a prisoner during an arrest and that the "rules of engagement" should be more clearly communicated to officers before they are sent to a situation involving a large crowd.
Woodman's parents, who have critical of the police response, planned a news conference Tuesday afternoon to comment on Stern's report.
Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley said earlier that he found no evidence of excessive force on the part of the police officers.
Conley said police spotted Woodman walking with a plastic cup filled with beer and that he refused to stop. When they approached him and grabbed him by his arm, Woodman took a sip and threw the cup on the ground.
Conley said that when police went to handcuff Woodman, he grabbed onto a wrought iron fence with both hands and had to be pulled away before he could be placed in custody.
Police found Woodman was unable to stand on his own and at first thought he was drunk. They placed him on the ground on his side in case he vomited. Some time later, officers noticed he was not breathing.