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It's been nearly three years since Tuan Thanh Tang died in Westminster police custody, but officers in the city are still instructed to use the restraining techniques that may have contributed to his death.
In reality, there are very few differences between the techniques the Westminster Police Department use to handle combative drug users today and those they used on Tuan on Oct. 10, 1998.
On that evening, Stacy Tang called 911, worried that her brother Tuan was sick. He was acting strange, she said, sweating profusely and complaining of migraines. But instead of treating him, the Tang family says, paramedics examined Tuan, determined he was intoxicated and turned him over to Westminster police. Family members say they pleaded with the police to take Tuan to the hospital, but officers ignored them, entered their home without permission, held down the 19-year-old, hog-tied his hands to his feet with nylon straps behind his back, and threw him into the back seat of a police cruiser.
When the cruiser arrived at the department, Westminster watch commander Mike Schliskey found Tuan facedown in the back of the car, still hog-tied. He was taken to Westminster jail and strapped to a metal restraint chair. Less than two hours after the arrest, paramedics found Tuan seizing and convulsing in the chair. Medical records show that Tuan suffered severe oxygen deprivation. According to an Orange County coroner's report, he died six days later from complications of acute cocaine intoxication. He was 19.
Opening statements in the wrongful-death trial of Tang began in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana on June 15. In a $10 million lawsuit, Tang's family alleges that Westminster police officers not only contributed to Tuan's death, but also did not properly train and supervise their officers in handling drug-overdose patients and minorities.
Although Vincent said that the department has informed officers about the dangers of what is called "positional asphyxiation" and Sudden Custody Death Syndrome (SCDS), Westminster police are still instructed to hog-tie especially difficult arrestees, transport them restrained in a squad car, and leave them in a restraint chair for an extended period of time.
Vincent explained that the department uses hog-tying—sometimes called "hobbling"—as a safety precaution for both police and combative arrestees, including drug users.
But according to national and international health experts, the practice can be deadly. It's also rare. In a Weekly survey of 23 Orange County police departments, nearly three-quarters said they still use hobbling. But there are stark differences between what these departments call hobbling and how Westminster police handled Tuan.
Garden Grove Sergeant Robert Fowler explained that hobbling a combative drug user depends on the situation. "But we won't ever throw [an arrestee] facedown in the back of the cruiser," he said. "And once we get the combatant under control, we keep them on their side until someone transports them [to a hospital] by ambulance."
Fowler said his department has used these techniques for at least the past two years because of the fear of positional asphyxiation. "There was new medical information that had come out in which [arrestees] on narcotics were suffering from heart failure when laid on their stomachs," Fowler said.
The Huntington Beach Police Department not only follows Garden Grove's practice for drug users but for the mentally ill as well. "It's all about safety. We just want to transport people in the safest and most humane way," said Senior Officer Gil Coerper.
In the county Sheriff's Department as well as the Anaheim and Cypress police departments, officers don't hobble combative drug offenders at all, instead transporting them by ambulance directly to a hospital. "The rules are so stringent here that if they have an infected hangnail, they are going to the hospital," said Lieutenant Joe Vargas of the Anaheim Police Department.
Tustin Police Lieutenant Mike Shanahan said the department rarely hobbles but would "never say never." Even if it gets into an extreme situation, officers will try to use the medically approved "four-point restraint" in which an arrestee is strapped to a gurney with padded-leather restraints.
"The use of a hobble is more of a last resort," he said. "Twenty years ago, it would have been a first resort if a person we were arresting was kicking out windows or kicking at officers. But through research, we have discovered the negative effects of putting people in that position."
Shanahan explained that since the majority of combative arrestees are alcohol or drug users, police are very concerned with the possibility of positional asphyxiation death syndrome. "The hobble is used far less now than it was 20 years ago because we have learned that what we learned in the academy—20, 15, even five years ago—is no longer good. So we've modified our teachings to correct the mistakes of the past," he said. "If a person exhibits bizarre behavior, that's the kind of person we suspect of being chemically or drug-induced. The jail will usually not accept people in this type of condition. Nowadays, someone that combative would be taken immediately to be treated at a hospital."