The Warrenton Police Department has conducted an internal review of the death of a man in police custody in April to determine whether officers followed policy on the use of force.
A police officer used a Taser to subdue Alexander Jimenez, 34, during an arrest for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Several sheriff’s deputies and officers also struggled to restrain Jimenez at the county jail before he lost consciousness and later died at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria.
A state forensic examination found Jimenez died from the toxic effects of methamphetamine, with fatty liver disease and the application of the Taser listed as significant conditions. The state medical examiner concluded the manner of death was accidental.
District Attorney Ron Brown ruled after an investigation that none of the officers involved used excessive force.
Since the investigative report was released in late August, The Astorian has asked the Warrenton Police Department, the Clatsop County Sheriff’s Office and Columbia Memorial Hospital about what steps, if any, they have taken in response to Jimenez’s death.
Warrenton Police Chief Mathew Workman said the death was discussed officially, through the internal review, and anecdotally with all officers.
“None of my officers ever want to see someone die nor do they want to ever hear that someone they arrested an hour ago dies,” Workman said in an email. “My officers deal with death on a weekly basis through death investigations, accident scenes, death notifications, etc. It is part of being a police officer and though we don’t show it, it hurts to see how the death of a family member or loved one hurts people.
“Whenever one of my officers is involved in an incident where there is a death involved (natural or otherwise), I talk to them and see how they are doing. We are human, we are compassionate, and incidents like this affect us all.”
Workman said the internal review is essentially complete. He said the police department still needed to look at the investigative report “to make sure the details are consistent with our internal review and to make sure we have not missed anything.”
Sheriff Matt Phillips said that with a better understanding of some external issues, he will look to see what needs to or can be changed at the jail. The sheriff said he has also been in communication with Disability Rights Oregon and is hoping to work with the nonprofit advocacy group.
A spokeswoman for Columbia Memorial did not respond to questions about whether the hospital has evaluated the medical screening process for people, like Jimenez, who are brought to the hospital before being booked into the jail.
Known to police
Jimenez, a U.S. Army veteran, was homeless until he found an apartment in Warrenton last year through a social service agency. An advocate who helped Jimenez with his government benefits and finances described him as Eskimo, Hispanic and Black and told investigators he had schizophrenia and used drugs. The advocate also said he had had several interactions with Warrenton police, was afraid of police and was terrified of going to jail.
After The Astorian published details from the investigative report, some people have asked whether police should approach suspects with mental health or drug abuse issues differently. The Warrenton officers, the report shows, believed from the start Jimenez was high on drugs and having a mental breakdown while walking into the street on S. Main Avenue downtown.
Body camera footage reviewed by the newspaper shows a Warrenton officer — who was training a recent graduate of the police academy that day — warned Jimenez he would use the Taser soon after Jimenez resisted the officers’ commands. The footage shows Jimenez was on the ground with the trainee beside him when the officer fired the Taser. After Jimenez tried to get up and was brought to the ground again, the officer followed up with what is known as a drive stun into Jimenez’s skin.
According to interview transcripts in the investigative report, the Warrenton officer explained that he does not like to use pepper spray because of the mess and he doubted it would be effective with Jimenez under the influence and resisting. “I just thought that the Taser was a better use for the type of incident and for what was going on physically with Mr. Jimenez that it would be more effective,” the officer told investigators.
A nurse and the doctor who screened Jimenez at Columbia Memorial were also concerned about the circumstances of Jimenez’s death after learning that several deputies and officers were involved in restraining Jimenez at the jail, including at least one officer who kneeled on him. Body camera footage shows deputies and officers pulling a handcuffed Jimenez out of a police SUV in the jail’s sally port, pushing him to the ground, placing spit hoods over his head and applying ankle and leg restraints while he struggled.
The forensic report did not find physical injuries from the struggle at the jail that might have caused Jimenez’s death.
‘Thin on resources’
Asked by The Astorian whether Warrenton police have discussed best practices when responding to people with mental health or substance abuse issues, Workman said: “We are constantly discussing this topic and looking for best practices, best resources, new resources and ways to get people the help they need.
“Unfortunately, the North Coast is very thin on resources and we tend to see a revolving-door system where people are in, out, in and out of treatment over and over.”
Workman said the police department subscribes to two online training portals with courses on anti-bias policing, implicit bias, de-escalation, arrest liability, ethics, stress management, use of force in community policing, ethical use of force, building trust, trauma-informed culture and other topics.
“Every incident is unique just as all people are unique, so we try to give officers a tool kit full of tools to help deal with the incident and come to the best resolution given the specific circumstances,” the police chief said.
Kirk Wintermute, an Astoria attorney and president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Clatsop County, does not believe there are enough safeguards to protect people experiencing mental health crisis.
“It’s really sad to see something like this happen where somebody’s obviously mentally ill and they are on the street for a long time, which you see a lot, or are not getting the treatment they need,” he said.
“Police are not usually trained to handle people who are mentally ill like that. And so things like this kind of happen because it’s not what police are for. They’re not mental health first responders. They’ve kind of been thrown into that job because nobody else will do it. But that’s not the ideal thing for anybody.”
Wintermute also serves on the county’s Public Safety Coordinating Council with law enforcement and mental health experts. He said the lack of funding and resources makes it hard to do what needs to be done or even know what needs to be done.
“And police are not the people who need to be involved in this stuff — I think for the most part — but they are the ones who have been stuck with it and they’re the ones who end up dealing with it,” he said. “And some are better than others at handling this kind of stuff. Some are better trained than others.
“But it’s just too much of a patchwork.”