A man who died after a Northern California sheriff’s deputy put him in a sleeper hold because officers believed he was suspected of carjacking was, in fact, driving his own car when he was pulled over, officials said Monday.
Shortly before dawn on the morning of Nov. 27, David Glen Ward was driving his green Honda Civic in Sonoma County when officers tried to pull him over. Ward had reported the vehicle stolen at gunpoint a few days earlier, but he did not update authorities that he had apparently since found the car.
Around 5:40 a.m., a police detective in Santa Rosa saw the 52-year-old’s car and, because it was still listed as stolen, called the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. A deputy tracked it down about 15 minutes later and he and several other officers attempted to make a traffic stop, the Santa Rosa Police Department said in a press release.
Ward, who police described as “incoherent,” initially stopped but then fled, police said, triggering a pursuit that lasted for seven minutes and hit speeds of about 70 mph. Officers tried to block his path and eventually succeeded shortly after 6 a.m, police said.
After they surrounded him, officers ordered him to open the door, which he refused to do, and instead kept raising and lowering his hands from view, according to police. Ward finally rolled the window down but did not get out of the car, the report said. As a result, the officers tried to remove him by pulling him through the driver’s side window.
“They struggled to remove Ward from the vehicle and were unsuccessful in getting him out,” police said, adding that, at one point during the struggle Ward bit two deputies.
The group of officers used “personal body weapons” and hit the driver several times “in an attempt to gain compliance and remove him from his vehicle.”
After several minutes of wrestling, one deputy tased Ward through the open window, but it didn’t do anything. Shortly after, another deputy placed one of his arm’s around Ward’s neck and put him in a carotid restraint, which is also known as a sleeper hold or a blood choke and is meant to knock someone unconscious.
While struggling with Ward, an officer was able to break his front passenger window with his baton and he was finally removed from the car and placed in handcuffs.
“During the struggle, Ward had asked the deputies and officers why they were harassing him and stated something to the effect of I’m the victim but did not specify what he was the victim of,” Santa Rosa Police Lt. Dan Marincik told BuzzFeed News.
At 6:10 a.m., a deputy called the dispatch center and reported that the driver had stopped breathing and they were starting CPR.
An ambulance arrived on the scene about 10 minutes later and took Ward to Petaluma Valley Hospital, where he died about an hour later.
Chokeholds have been controversial and several major police departments have stopped using them. Despite a 20-year ban on the maneuver, an NYPD officer deployed the chokehold on Eric Garner in 2014 as he repeatedly gasped, “I can’t breathe.” He was later pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
In October 2019, community groups and activists in San Diego called on police to ban the use of carotid restraint, saying that it was disproportionately used on people of color and can severely injure or kill a person.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Sonoma County Sheriff’s office does not consider the carotid restraint to be a chokehold because it doesn’t constrict the airway. The department’s policy states that a trained deputy should only use the tactic when a subject is becoming “violent or combative…due to the potential for injury.”
In response to questions about Ward’s state during the entire encounter, Marincik said he didn’t know if he would “characterize any of the interaction as normal.”
“When he was handcuffed, his movement was minimal. At one point, one of the deputies or officers stated that he was breathing,” he said. “I do not know how cognizant he was at that time.”
Ward was in “poor health,” had a heart condition, and had trouble walking, family members told the Press Democrat. His mother, Ernie Ward, said he used an oxygen tank and often need a wheelchair after a drunk driver hit him about 20 years ago, the paper reported.
“He had a hard time breathing and it’s hard to imagine him having even the energy or force to aggressively avoid an arrest,” his half-sister, Catherine Aguilera, told the Democrat.
Marincik said his department is still investigating the incident and the four law enforcement officials who were involved in the incident have been placed on administrative review.
He did not know if Deputy Charlie Blount, who applied the carotid hold, had been properly trained in the tactic. Blount has with the sheriff’s department for 19 years, according to the release. Before that, he was an officer with the Santa Rosa police department for about two years.
In a statement, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said it will be conducting its own probe to “determine if deputies followed policies.”
“We have an expectation not only to ourselves but to our community to keep people safe, and the last thing that we want is for someone to get hurt or worse,” Marincik said. “Unfortunately, when a use of force incident ends in a tragic outcome you can not help but feel grief and heartache not only to the person involved but for their family and friends.”