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Chief Alters Tactics in Wake of 5 Police Prisoner Deaths

August 09, 1987|ROXANA KOPETMAN | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — An unusually high number of deaths involving people in police custody in recent months has spurred Police Chief Lawrence L. Binkley to issue seven directives that include creating boards of inquiry for all police-related deaths.

Binkley said he also will require monthly training sessions on the use of force and more supervisory assistance in the field during violent arrests. Leg restraints will be installed in police cruisers and all persons arrested must now wear seat belts in police cars.

All Long Beach officers already have been sent back to the training academy for refresher courses in the use of batons, Binkley said in an interview. Finally, he said, Taser-brand electric-shock guns have been ordered and will be used on a trial basis to subdue violent suspects.

"My staff and I have great concern about the use of force and every time an officer is involved in the case of a death," Binkley said. He cited not only concern for "the safety of the community but the safety of the officer."

"The community, and the newspaper sometimes, forgets how traumatic it is for the officer when a death occurs," Binkley said.

Unfortunate but Coincidental

The five deaths since March of people in custody have been unfortunate but coincidental, Binkley said. And while none appears to be due to unnecessary police force, the chief said the changes he has ordered will help officers deal with potentially violent situations.

Binkley acknowledged that the number of deaths in five months was unusual for the department. During all of 1986, the department had five similar deaths, according to Commander Robert M. Luman.

Training sessions on the appropriate use of force are now given at the first daily squad meeting of each month. The monthly reminders on how much force is appropriate during different circumstances may be repetitious, Binkley said, but "if you talk about something every month, everyone keeps it on their mind."

The department also recently ordered nine 50,000-volt Taser guns--a non-lethal alternative Binkley said will be used on a tryout basis. The Taser guns will be assigned to sergeants and used only to subdue extremely violent persons, Binkley said.

Taser guns would be particularly useful in confrontations involving violence caused by drugs, where the suspect is unable to reason, Binkley said. "Rather than fighting them, you can use this," the chief explained.

Binkley said he believes Taser guns--which fire an electrically charged dart--are easier to control and subject to fewer complaints of abuse than electronic stun guns, which give a shock when pressed against the skin. Some police agencies, including those in Anaheim and the Orange County Sheriff's Department, have banned use of stun guns. Critics of electronic weapons say the guns provide police with an easy way to inflict pain while leaving little or no evidence of possible misconduct.

It's Easy to Keep Record of Darts

But Binkley said that because the Tasers use darts, there is a record of the number of cartridges used enabling supervisors to monitor their use.

Another non-lethal weapon is the baton, and every police officer has been sent back to the Police Academy in recent months to renew training on its use, Binkley said.

In conjunction with the review of non-lethal alternatives, Binkley also has called for more supervisory assistance for officers dealing with violent cases. When there is a report of a violent mental or narcotics case, a sergeant is dispatched to the scene along with patrol officers, Binkley said.

When a death in custody occurs, there is a police review by homicide investigators. If the case warrants it, the review report would recommend an investigation by officers in the internal affairs section. In addition, Binkley has created a board of inquiry for each death. The new board would be composed of the commander in charge of personnel, a union representative, a couple of deputies, and a peer as well as the commander of the officer involved. Binkley would determine in each case whether discipline is warranted.

Previously, only deaths involving shootings were subject to a board of inquiry and an internal affairs investigation. Deaths that did not involve a shooting were investigated by homicide detectives.

Sgt. Gary Whinery, who supervises the homicide detail, called the board of inquiry a "really significant" change.

"There's always something to learn; either you learn that you were doing the right thing or that changes are needed," Whinery said.

Binkley said he decided to order the additional leg restraints and the board of inquiry after the death of Arnold E. Funkhouser, 38, who died March 5, shortly after Binkley became chief.

Had Heart Problem

Funkhouser, who had a heart condition, died from cardiomyopathy, a heart disease, and blunt force trauma to the head after struggling with police officers.

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