Man dies after police officer slams his head into car he was mistakenly believed to have stolen

David Ward fled police in his own car that he had retrieved after reporting stolen, leading officers to believe he was the carjacker

Marisa Iati
Sunday 22 December 2019 16:50 GMT
Bodycam footage shows police slamming man's head into car he was mistakenly believed to have stolen

A California sheriff's deputy sped down the road in the early-morning darkness, trying to pull over the car in front of him. The green Honda Civic had been stolen days earlier, and now, the driver refused to stop.

The pursuit involved several officers. After the chase ended, Sonoma County sheriff's deputy Charlie Blount arrived at the scene. Body camera footage captured him slamming the driver's head into the frame of the car, which turned out to belong to the man. The driver stopped breathing and was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

In a video released on Friday that also contained the body camera footage, Sonoma County sheriff Mark Essick said Mr Blount had been on administrative leave since the incident and would remain so until the end of the internal investigation and any appeals of the result, but that he had been issued a notice of termination.

“We release these videos so the community can get as full a picture as possible about critical incidents in our county, regardless of whether it puts us in a good light or bad,” Mr Essick said in the video, which is graphic and explicit.

David Glen Ward, 52, was the victim of a carjacking 24 November and somehow got the vehicle back, police said. Mr Ward, however, did not tell law enforcement that he had recovered the car.

A Santa Rosa police detective called the sheriff's office around 5.40am on 27 November to say that the Honda had been spotted. When deputy Jason Little tried to stop the car minutes later, police said Mr Ward started to pull over but then led police on a five-mile pursuit that reached speeds of more than 70 mph.

Police said Mr Little tried to stop Mr Ward with a PIT manoeuvre - a tactic in which officers ram their vehicles into a fleeing vehicle to force it to swerve sideways. Mr Little ordered Mr Ward to show his hands but then continued driving, telling a dispatcher that Mr Ward had kept moving his hands towards his waist.

Mr Little used another PIT manoeuvre in the town of Bloomfield, and Mr Ward's car came to a stop at a dead end. Mr Little yelled at Mr Ward to show his hands and turn off the car.

Mr Blount then arrived and ordered Mr Ward to unlock his car door with one hand. Mr Ward moved his hand towards the lock button, but the door did not unlock. Mr Ward rolled down the window.

“I can't believe this. I'm the injured party in this,” he said. He asked the deputies why they were “harassing [him] all the time.”

The deputies tried to pull Mr Ward out of the window while Mr Ward yelled, “My legs! My legs!” Mr Blount pointed out that Mr Ward's leg was under the steering wheel.

“He bit me!” Mr Blount cried out. A few seconds later, Mr Little said Mr Ward had bit him as well.

That's when Mr Blount pulled Mr Ward's head out of the window by his hair and slammed it into the car's frame. A crunching noise rang out as Mr Ward moaned.

Mr Little then fired a taser at Mr Ward. As Mr Ward continued to move, Mr Blount tried to put him in a carotid restraint, which police sometimes use to block a person's carotid arteries and cause them to become unconscious. The hold appeared to last for about 30 seconds.

David Ward died following the altercation
David Ward died following the altercation (AP)

An officer broke the front passenger window and reached in to unlock the passenger door. Police pushed Mr Ward out of that door and handcuffed him as he lay on the ground.

“Is he conscious?” Mr Blount asked.

“No, we need medical, man. Get medical,” Mr Little replied.

The officers rolled Mr Ward onto his side and noted that he was still breathing. Mr Little shined a flashlight into the front seat of Mr Ward's car and said that Mr Ward had a knife.

Deputy Nick Jax then arrived and told the other officers that the man lying unconscious in front of them was the car's owner.

“That's David Ward,” Mr Jax said.

“Then why did he run?” Mr Little asked.

“I don't know why he ran,” Mr Jax replied. “You have every - All this, it's legit. He had no reason to run. But I was out with him earlier, like two hours ago, at his house. The car wasn't there at the time. Obviously, he somehow, he made contact with the guy and got it. But he was here two hours ago, and this is him.”

“Oh well,” Mr Blount said.

“There's no reason for him to have done this,” Mr Jax repeated.

When someone noted that Ward had stopped breathing, officers administered CPR. Police said paramedics then brought Mr Ward to a hospital, where he was declared dead.

The Marin County coroner's office is investigating the cause of death.

Mr Blount's attorney, Harry Stern, said his client, who has worked at the Sonoma County sheriff's office for 19 years, is not responsible for Mr Ward's death. Mr Stern said Mr Blount's actions were reasonable and that he believed that the sheriff had chosen to fire Mr Blount out of “panic, political expediency and hindsight.”

“Frankly, Mr Ward caused his own death by inexplicably taking a number of bizarre actions that confirmed in the deputies' minds that he was an armed carjacker, rather than the victim of that crime,” Mr Stern said in a statement. “It is my understanding that the medical evidence will show that Mr Ward had a serious pre-existing condition and had methamphetamine in his system - most significantly, there were no indications of trauma to his neck.”

Officials have not released information about Mr Ward's injuries, any substances that may have been in his body or his medical history. Family members, however, told The Press Democrat that Mr Ward had trouble breathing and walking, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a heart condition.

An arm of Sonoma County's law enforcement oversight office this month proposed banning carotid restraints, which can cause injury or death if the hold is done incorrectly or maintained for too long, The Press Democrat reported. Many police departments in the Eighties and Nineties banned carotid holds after they were blamed in suspects' deaths.

Santa Rosa police lieutenant Dan Marincik told The Press Democrat that he could not say whether Mr Blount was properly trained in carotid restraints because he did not have Mr Blount's training records.

As for why Mr Ward initiated the pursuit in the first place, Mr Essick said officials have no idea.

“It remains a mystery as to why he fled from our deputies,” he said.

The Washington Post

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