Berkeley police waited too long to call for paramedics as a man died in their custody last year, a three-person panel of the Berkeley Police Review Commission concluded.
In a report issued last week, the panel sustained four allegations against Officer George Hamilton and Jailer Lee Erby for not following protocol when a man in their custody stopped speaking and was bleeding from inside his mouth.
The commission ruled that the officers made mistakes by never searching the man’s mouth and waiting nearly an hour to call paramedics.
Tyrone Hughes Jr. died in custody last March after he swallowed five plastic bags of cocaine when stopped in his car by police.
The PRC panel did not blame the officers for Hughes’ death. In the autopsy report, Dr. Paul Herrmann wrote that Hughes had “the highest blood level of cocaine I’ve ever seen.”
He concluded that Hughes would have died even if police had called paramedics earlier, according to PRC Secretary Dan Silva.
Still PRC Commissioner Sharon Kidd wrote that the response from the two officers “was neither adequate nor timely, nor in accordance with BPD policies and procedures.”
Hughes’ son Tyrone said the PRC ruling, which has no legal consequence for the officers, did not diminish his anger towards Berkeley police.
“To watch a person die and not do anything?” he said. “I’m waiting for a white person to die like that.”
The BPD’s Internal Affairs Unit also investigated Hughes’ death, but its findings are confidential.
On the early morning of March 29, Officer Hamilton stopped Hughes’ car when he noticed the two-door convertible had no front license plate. A records check found that Hughes had an outstanding felony warrant for drug possession. Two baggies of illegal drugs were later recovered from Hughes jacket pocket by jailer Erby.
Hughes arrived at Berkeley jail at 1:26 a.m. and while booking him, Hamilton noticed a couple of drops of blood coming from between Hughes’ lips, according to the PRC report.
When Hamilton asked Hughes if he needed medical attention, Hughes shook his head indicating “no,” and Hamilton continued filling out paper work.
As Hughes’ condition worsened, both Hamilton and Erby began wondering if Hughes was hiding drugs in his mouth, according to the PRC report.
Hamilton put his hands on Hughes’ face but didn’t force open his mouth. Hamilton later told police investigators that he thought “there might be some medical circumstances going on and my pressing on [his mouth] wasn’t going to help him.... So I decided not to do that.”
Hughes was then strip-searched by Erby. After the search, which did not involve looking inside Hughes’ mouth, Hughes slumped to the floor and the officers again saw blood coming from his mouth.
Hamilton told BPD investigators that he then left the cell for a minute to ask other jailers what a “dope sick person looked like” because he “hadn’t seen one before.”
Hamilton returned to find Hughes “lying and twitching on the floor as if he was having a seizure.”
Then, according to fire department records, Hamilton called for paramedics at 2:21 a.m., nearly an hour after first seeing blood fall from Hughes’ mouth.
Paramedics removed two pieces of chewed up plastic from Hughes’ mouth and rushed him to Alta Bates Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 3:27 a.m.
The three-member PRC panel unanimously sustained one allegation against Erby for not providing prompt medical assistance. The commissioners were troubled that Erby gave conflicting testimony. He testified at the panel hearing that he knew Hughes was in trouble and was under the impression that the fire department had been called. However, in his interview with PRC investigators he said he had no reason to call paramedics and that the blood “could have been anything ... bleeding gums ... some kind of illness that made him bleed ...”
By a vote of 2-1, the panel also ruled that Hamilton failed to provide medical assistance and that Erby and Hamilton had acted improperly by not searching Hughes’ mouth.
In dissent, Commissioner Jack Radisch, a retired prosecutor, said there was no law requiring police “to make a violent, intrusive entry into the body cavity of a person.” Radisch continued, “There was probably little or nothing that could have been done to save the life of a man who refused to complain even when it must have been apparent that he had a serious problem.”