More than a decade since a man died at the hospital days after Long Beach police detained him, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has cleared officers of any criminal wrongdoing in his death.
In a letter sent last month, the DA’s office says officers acted reasonably when they used a neck hold to restrict the flow of blood to 33-year-old Juan Calderon’s brain before cuffing him.
The DA’s conclusion is not unusual—it’s rare for officers to be charged with criminal wrongdoing in a suspect’s death—but the 12 years it took to reach that outcome is out of the ordinary.
Back on Aug. 3, 2007, Calderon was acting erratically when his sister-in-law flagged down Long Beach police officers, according to the DA’s letter.
Worried Calderon was a threat to his elderly father, family members asked the officers for help dealing with Calderon, the DA wrote. Calderon had a history of mental illness, appeared to be high or drunk, and was acting aggressively, according to the letter. Officers at the scene said Calderon was “foaming at the mouth,” kicking his feet and “flinging” his arms while refusing to be cuffed.
When Calderon bent over and appeared to try to bite one of the officers, the officer grabbed Calderon around the neck in a stranglehold used to stop or slow the blood traveling through his carotid arteries, according to the DA’s letter.
When Calderon briefly lost consciousness, officers cuffed him before paramedics checked him out and took him to the hospital to be treated for being intoxicated, the DA’s office wrote.
Police did not arrest him, instead releasing him into the care of the hospital, where he died 13 days later when he developed a blood disorder, kidney complications and his respiratory system failed, according to authorities.
The medical examiner who looked at Calderon’s body found a small fracture to the thyroid cartilage in his neck—which could have been caused by the stranglehold—but couldn’t determine whether police’s actions contributed at all to his death, the DA’s office wrote. The coroner concluded Calderon died from “complications of multiple drug intoxications.”
Police departments across the state and country have varying rules about when and how officers can use strangleholds that cut off blood flow or chokeholds that cut off air.
In this case, the carotid artery hold is an appropriate technique by Long Beach police standards, and it was used correctly against Calderon, according to LBPD Deputy Chief Erik Herzog.
“It is a great tactic for us,” Herzog said.
Because an improperly executed carotid hold can have deadly consequences, Herzog said officers are told to use it as a last resort, but he argued it can prevent other injuries when used properly.
The DA’s office ultimately concurred, saying the LBPD personnel acted reasonably and that, “it cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers caused Calderon’s death.”
But, the letter notes that even if there had been some criminal liability, officers couldn’t have been charged because LBPD homicide detectives who investigated the case didn’t pass it along to the DA’s office until “after the expiration of all relevant statutes of limitation.”
The DA’s office gave no explanation for this delay in its letter, but Herzog said it appears the case got lost in a filing system that’s since become more organized.
Because he died days later at the hospital, Long Beach police originally didn’t consider Calderon’s death an “in-custody death,” which would trigger an investigation by the department’s homicide unit and a final determination by the DA’s office about whether officers were criminal responsible.
But in the years after Calderon died, the department changed its definition of an “in-custody death” to include anyone who dies after police even attempt to detain him or her, according to the deputy chief.
Now, Herzog said, “If I yell at a guy ‘hey stop,’ and he runs and jumps over the edge of the building, we’re going to call that an in-custody death.”
Nevertheless, Herzog said, police believe they dropped Calderon’s case off to be reviewed by the DA’s office long before Sept. 29, 2019, which is when the DA says it received the file. However, there was no concrete documentation to back that up.
It wasn’t until the prosecutor assigned to the case had been promoted to a different assignment and someone else was looking through her old caseload that they realized the Calderon investigation had never been wrapped up, according to Herzog.
He said the prosecutor didn’t remember ever receiving the case from detectives, so the DA’s office contacted the LBPD and had them bring over the files.
Herzog said the department now logs when it submits in-custody death cases to the DA’s office.
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