Disability rights advocates believe the technique used by sheriff’s deputies to restrain Alexander Jimenez, a Warrenton man who died in police custody at the Clatsop County Jail in April, increased his risk of dying.
Jimenez, 34, was one of 10 deaths at Oregon jails last year investigated by Disability Rights Oregon. A report released by the Portland-based nonprofit on Monday found that the deaths were preventable and that “jail conditions put individuals with disabilities at risk of deadly harm.”
Jimenez, who had mental health and drug abuse issues, died on April 17 after being arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest after walking into the street in downtown Warrenton.
Warrenton police used a Taser to subdue Jimenez during the arrest. He was taken to Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria where he received medical clearance from a doctor from the back of the police SUV before being brought to the jail.
At the sally port at the jail, several deputies pulled Jimenez, who was handcuffed, out of the police SUV, pushed him on the ground face down and placed spit hoods over his head.
Several deputies and officers kneeled on him or held him down while applying ankle and leg restraints. During the struggle, which lasted several minutes, deputies noticed blood coming from Jimenez’s mouth and that he had lost consciousness. He was taken back to the hospital, where he died.
The state medical examiner ruled the cause of Jimenez’s death was the toxic effects of methamphetamine and the manner of death was accidental. Fatty liver disease and the application of the Taser were listed as other significant conditions.
The forensic examination did not find injuries from the struggle at the jail that might have caused the death.
District Attorney Ron Brown found that Warrenton police had probable cause to arrest Jimenez and that “no excessive force was used at any juncture.”
Disability Rights Oregon and others who have reviewed Jimenez’s death have called for changes.
“This life-threatening restraint technique is called a ‘prone restraint’ and is banned in many schools and clinical settings for the same reasons it should be banned in the criminal justice system — it contributes directly to the inability to breathe and drastically increases the risk of death,” the Disability Rights Oregon report said about the technique used to restrain Jimenez at the jail.
“Risks are elevated when combined with other factors that are prevalent in jails, such as intoxication, mental health symptoms, agitation, obesity and respiratory distress.”
Liz Reetz, a public interest law fellow at Stanford Law School who works with Disability Rights Oregon’s Mental Health Rights Project, said the technique is dangerous even in cases where people are healthy.
“Unfortunately for Alex Jimenez, he was too sick to be booked in jail at the time he was brought in,” Reetz said.
Disability Rights Oregon made recommendations to the jail in response to Jimenez’s death and urged Oregon to ban prone restraint and similar restraint techniques.
Sheriff Matt Phillips said he is working collaboratively with Disability Rights Oregon. The sheriff said in a statement that Jimenez’s death “shook my staff deeply and resulted in employees seeking counseling.
“As a community, we need to be able to quickly connect people with mental illness to treatment when they need it to avoid arrests and triggering the criminal justice process. Timely access to care benefits the individual in crisis and helps the whole community use its resources more effectively.
“Smaller, rural communities in particular lack sufficient mental health services. Greater investments in local mental health care will result in fewer arrests and make our communities stronger. People with mental illness should have their most basic health care needs met in the community.”
Phillips told The Astorian he has implemented several of Disability Rights Oregon’s recommendations, including authorizing jail staff to refuse to admit anyone experiencing excited delirium, mental health crisis or acute intoxication.
The sheriff said Clatsop County established a pretrial release policy in 2017, which has reduced the jail’s population.
“In Mr. Jimenez’s case, he only would have stayed in custody until sober,” Phillips said. “It would have been much better for him to sober at the hospital.”
Phillips said he worked with Columbia Memorial to establish monthly meetings to talk about law enforcement and emergency room interactions and expectations.
“Screening for jail clearance will not be allowed in the back seat of a car anymore,” the sheriff said. “The arrestee has to be brought in for an evaluation.”
Disability Rights Oregon conducted the investigation in response to Oregon Public Broadcasting’s 2019 reporting on deaths in Oregon and Washington state jails and a report by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.
Disability Rights Oregon looked into Jimenez’s death, as well as a suicide by hanging that occurred at the Clatsop County Jail in April.
The other deaths were in jails in Deschutes, Jackson, Klamath, Marion and Polk counties, along with the Springfield Municipal Jail and the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities detention center in The Dalles.
“We reviewed that information with the hope of trying to identify any cases that were independently really problematic and troubling that might warrant further investigation, and also to look at what are the patterns that we are seeing — how can we advocate for systems-level change that can prevent some of these deaths,” Reetz said. “Especially because so many happened in a year where jail populations were significantly reduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Lack of resources
The Astorian obtained the investigative report into Jimenez’s death, prepared by the Oregon State Police, and published a story about the findings in August.
The newspaper also reported on several other incidents in 2020 when police were called to situations involving people in mental health crisis.
In December, an Astoria woman was shot and killed by an Oregon State Police trooper near Sunset Beach after entering a home and later climbing onto the roof with a gun.
Alaina Burns, 31, had been arrested a few days earlier for burglary in the second degree, theft in the second degree and criminal mischief in the first degree. She was booked at the county jail and released the same day because of coronavirus precautions.
An investigation into Burns’ death is underway.
A man who described himself as close to Burns’ family said she struggled with drug addiction and mental illness and that her partner was trying to get her help. He said he believed the system failed her, and that she should have been held in custody on the presumption she was a danger to herself and others.
The lack of federal and state financial support for mental health and substance abuse treatment, and the high threshold for civil commitment in Oregon, have been sources of frustration for police, mental health providers and people and their families.
Over the past several years, The Astorian has documented treatment gaps that leave some of the most vulnerable people on the North Coast at risk of harm.
Police often repeatedly respond to the same people in crisis. With no secure beds for mental health in Clatsop County, officers are left with the option of taking people who are intoxicated and in crisis to hospital emergency rooms or jail.
A mobile crisis team from Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, the county’s mental health provider, is available to assist police and sheriff’s deputies on calls involving people in crisis, but a lack of funding and resources has kept the service from being a more effective tool.
In January, Gearhart Police Chief Jeff Bowman announced that his officers will not be first responders to mental health calls unless there is an imminent threat of physical harm to others. The police chief said the decision was in response to a fatal police shooting of a man in mental health crisis in Texas. He said he hoped others in Oregon would take up the issue, but recognized he was “just one person taking on bureaucracy.”
“The 10 people who died in Oregon jails in 2020 affirm what DRO knows generally about the population of people confined in county jails: Most are facing low-level charges related to behavioral health needs, poverty and difficult life circumstances,” the Disability Rights Oregon report said. “The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission asserts that ‘jails have become the default case management system for repeat, low-level offenders who are often houseless, often have substance abuse disorders, and often have mental health issues, traumatic brain injuries, or other chronic health issues.’
“Prosecuting and incarcerating people on minor charges unnecessarily exposes them to harmful conditions in jails. This is especially true for people with disabilities or complex health care needs.
“Criminalizing behavioral health conditions exacerbates existing symptoms, adds additional trauma and further disrupts progress towards housing, services and other stabilizing benefits in the community,” the report said. “The failure to adequately fund effective community-based mental health systems has directly contributed to people with disabilities in need of treatment being met with jail and prison rather than recovery and care.”