California Police Kept Death in Custody a Secret for Seven Years, Inquiry Reveals

Sam Levin / Guardian UK
California Police Kept Death in Custody a Secret for Seven Years, Inquiry Reveals A police officer. (photo: Adobe Stock)

Darryl Mefferd’s death was labeled an ‘accident’, but a report questions a Vallejo police officer’s role in the fatal incident

California law enforcement officials have worked for seven years to keep secret a death in police custody, labeling the case an “accident” and refusing to disclose basic information to journalists and the family of the victim, an investigation published on Monday reveals.

Darryl Mefferd, 49, died on 8 December 2016 while he was detained by police in Vallejo, a city of 125,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area. The case was uncovered by Open Vallejo, a local non-profit news organization, which shared its records with the Guardian.

The afternoon before he died, Mefferd had seemed disoriented and dehydrated and was making paranoid remarks, so his niece, Courtney Mefferd, took him to a local hospital. He was treated with vitamins and a sedative and declared “stable”, medical records show. By around 11pm, he was anxious to be discharged and left the hospital against doctors’ recommendations.

Outside the hospital, Mefferd encountered the Vallejo police department (VPD) officer Jeremy Callinan. Callinan was responding to the hospital’s call for help with a female patient who had fled the facility, but the officer instead located Mefferd and placed him in “protective custody”, police records show. When Cindie, Mefferd’s sister, arrived at the hospital, she saw Callinan leading her brother into a police vehicle, she told Open Vallejo. She said she asked the officer to let her take her brother home, but the officer refused and said he would instead take Mefferd to a mental health crisis center. “They are going to kill me,” Cindie recalled her brother saying as he was driven away.

It remains unclear what exactly happened next. The Solano county sheriff coroner’s office investigated the death, but a report written by the sergeant in charge of the investigation included conflicting narratives.

“The initial information I had was that [Mefferd] had been in a physical confrontation” with Callinan while exiting the police car outside the crisis center in the nearby city of Fairfield, the Solano sergeant wrote. A Solano detective who was called to the scene described the encounter as an “altercation”, saying that when police arrived to the center, they found Mefferd “on the ground with Ofc [Officer] Callinan”, the sergeant wrote. “As the officers rolled [Mefferd] over they discovered that he was not breathing.”

The sergeant said he had shared this account with the family, but subsequently “learned that the report of a physical confrontation with the police was unfounded” and that the “police officer assisted the decedent to the ground when he stumbled while being escorted”. The sergeant indicated his new understanding of what happened was based on testimony Callinan gave to other investigators.

Summarizing Callinan’s account to investigators, the sergeant wrote: “Ofc Callinan was able to somewhat support [Mefferd] as [Mefferd] went to the ground. Ofc Callinan went down on one knee while the other knee was bent and resting against [Mefferd].”

The sergeant wrote Callinan “never had his body weight” on Mefferd, “who was responsive for several minutes prior to losing consciousness”.

A Solano detective who reviewed Callinan’s body-camera footage said it substantiated Callinan’s account, the sergeant wrote, even though the video was “partially obscured” by clothing.

Mefferd was taken to the emergency room where he was pronounced dead at about 1am on 8 December.

Scrutiny of ‘accidental’ ruling

The autopsy performed by the Solano county coroner also raised questions about how Mefferd died.

The coroner ruled the death an “accident”, attributing it to a “lethal dose of methamphetamine”.

But when Mefferd was under medical observation for roughly eight hours before his death, his doctor had deemed his drug diagnosis “uncomplicated”.

The autopsy also documented that Mefferd had suffered blunt force trauma to his knees, torso, arms and face, had three contusions on his head, and a large contusion on his buttock. Mefford’s family says he had no trauma or injuries before being detained.

Experts who reviewed the case for Open Vallejo said they were concerned the officer might have held Mefferd in a prone restraint position outside the crisis center, meaning Mefferd was lying facedown.

Authorities, including the US Department of Justice, have warned for years that holding someone in such a position can risk fatal cardiac arrest as they struggle to breathe. That risk is higher for people who have consumed certain drugs, including methamphetamine.

Dr Victor Weedn, former chief medical examiner for the state of Maryland, who reviewed the case, told the outlet he believed the death was not an overdose, but a heart attack while being held down: “There’s no reason for any trauma at all, except for this incident … I really think we are talking about [prone restraint cardiac arrest].”

Dr Michael Freeman, a forensic medical doctor, said the coroner’s office did not conduct a “complete investigation” into how Mefferd died even though there was evidence of a struggle and injuries. He noted that it appeared the sergeant who authored the investigation report did not do follow-up interviews or directly watch the body-cam footage.

The pathologists suggested the death should have been ruled a homicide by the coroner, not an accidental death.

Spokespeople for Vallejo police and the Solano sheriff did not respond to inquiries. Callinan did not respond to inquiries. A spokesperson for the Fairfield police department said its involvement in the case was limited, but that when its officers arrived at the scene, “they observed a person on the ground and administered CPR for several minutes until medical personnel arrived and took over.”

‘They’re covering it up’

News of Mefferd’s case will increase scrutiny on VPD, which has a long history of scandals, including extraordinarily high rates of killings by police and allegations that some officers have commemorated their killings by bending tips on their badges.

Mefferd’s case is not the only one in which the department has fought to keep police files secret. California police are mandated to disclose records when officers’ use of force causes “great bodily injury” or death, but Open Vallejo was repeatedly denied documents until it sued the city and a judge ordered Vallejo to comply with public records laws. The outlet’s suit revealed four deaths in VPD custody last year – all unarmed Black men who died while under arrest and after police used force against them.

Those four cases, too, were ruled “accidents” by the coroner’s office. Three of the victims were held in prone restraint, according to the outlet.

And even though the judge ordered the city to release records on police cases involving “great bodily injury”, the city still has not disclosed files on Mefferd’s death. Open Vallejo only learned of the death from a source who noted the case wasn’t in the news organization’s database of VPD lethal force incidents. The Vallejo city attorney’s office recently argued Mefferd’s case did not qualify as “great bodily injury”, citing the autopsy.

There has been growing criticism of how sheriff-coroner’s offices and medical examiners across the US investigate in-custody deaths. A recent Associated Press investigation documented hundreds of cases of people who died in police custody after officers used physical force, but whose deaths were labeled as “accidents” or “natural” by pathologists.

When deaths are labeled accidental, police departments face less stringent reporting requirements, making it significantly easier for officers and their departments to avoid accountability.

“They’ve been trying to cover this up from the moment the coroner’s office told me he’s no longer with us,” Mefferd’s niece Courtney said. “It is so sickening and frustrating. I’ve been screaming his name, trying to get his story heard and get him justice … And for so long, I told myself it was my fault, that I never should have taken him to the hospital, that he would still be home with his mama if I hadn’t taken him.”

The family has wanted to sue the city, but Courtney said civil rights lawyers wouldn’t take the case because of the death being ruled an “accident”.

Courtney said her uncle was living in Wyoming but had moved back to Vallejo to take care of his mother. He wanted to be a chef and specialized in making pastas from scratch.

His death had left their family deeply scarred, she said. Darryl’s older brother recently died, she said. She recalled that on his death bed, “he just kept saying: ‘It’s time for me to be with my brother.’

“This will affect our family for generations,” she said.

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