On the evening of Oct. 10, 1998, Stacy Tang made the call that may have killed her brother. By the time she picked up the phone, 19-year-old Tuan Thanh Tang was breathing erratically, throwing up and complaining of severe headaches. Concerned that Tuan might have taken drugs, Stacy called 911 for an ambulance to take her brother to a hospital. She was horrified when instead of being treated, she says, her brother was examined quickly by paramedics, hog-tied by Westminster police and tossed into a squad car. Less than two hours later, paramedics summoned to the Westminster Police Station found Tuan convulsing in a restraint chair. He stopped breathing on the way to the hospital; six days later, he was dead.
The Orange County sheriff-coroner has ruled that Tuan died from “complications of acute cocaine intoxication.” But Tuan's family believes police and paramedics' procedures killed their son. In a $10 million claim filed against the city of Westminster, its police, Orange County and county paramedics, the family alleges that Tuan was a victim of negligence, excessive use of force and racial bias.
Tom Tang, Tuan's father, says, “If I knew that they would have done this, I would have taken my son to the hospital myself.”
Police and paramedics say they followed established procedures in the case. If they're right, Tuan's death suggests those procedures are deadly.
There are many versions of what happened when police and paramedics arrived at the Tang home at 10:42 p.m. Tom Tang charges the paramedics did not fully examine his son.
“They didn't even look at the boy,” he asserts. “They talked to the police and left.”
In fact, it appears that police and paramedics followed emergency guidelines explicitly. Paramedics are required to perform a primary survey within 60 seconds of arriving in order to determine if there are any immediate threats to a patient's life. In Tuan's case, that survey concluded he was alert and “oriented times four”: he knew his name, the date, where he was and why he was there. According to a paramedic report, Tuan “denied any use of drugs and refused our care.”
A Westminster Police Department report states that paramedics concluded that although Tuan was “under the influence of 'some kind of drug' . . . this seemed more of a police matter.”
Nine minutes after arriving, paramedics left the Tang home and officers of the Westminster Police Department called in drug-recognition expert officer Lyle Gensler. Based on symptoms such as perspiration, agitation and poor attention span, Gensler concluded Tuan “was possibly under the influence of PCP.” Later, it turned out that Tuan was overdosing on cocaine. While not known for producing the prodigious feats of strength associated with PCP, cocaine does cause a similar symptom, says Yusaku Uchimura, emergency-room physician at Garden Grove Hospital. “There's a perception problem as to what you can and can't do,” Uchimura says. “In essence, what happens is that [users] have an adrenalin rush, and that adrenalin rush is sustained and goes out of control. They get very nervous. The users feel like they want to run.”
Some of Tuan's adrenalin worked itself out on Gensler. According to his report, “When I went to feel [Tuan's] left wrist for a pulse, he tried to strike me in the face with his right hand.” Gensler claims he was “kicked in the left eye by [Tuan]” and that Tuan “kept grabbing me in the groin area.”
Police say it took seven officers to subdue and arrest the 5-foot-7, 144-pound Tuan. It's not clear whether Tuan was hurt in that struggle, but 19 photographs released by the Westminster PD show that he received bruises on his legs, hips, arms and back; scrapes on his back, left shoulder and face; and a cut on his hand.
Watch commander Lieutenant Mike Schliskey was at the station when officers brought Tuan in for booking at 11:11 p.m. “I observed the subject face-down on the back seat of the police unit,” Schliskey's report reads. “His hands [were] cuffed behind his back, and his legs [were] secured with a black-nylon restraint strap and pulled up and connected to the handcuffs to keep the legs secure and prevent kicking.”
Such hog-tying-or “hobbling,” as the Westminster PD likes to call it-can be lethal. Doctors and respiratory therapists who spoke with the Weekly say it reduces a person's ability to breathe completely, limiting the flow of oxygen to the brain. For that reason, the Orange County Sheriff's Department has banned hog-tying altogether; other agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department, prohibit their officers from transporting hog-tied arrestees face-down.
“If they are [having drug-related] seizures or something, they can't breathe; they can't expand their chest. They can basically suffocate,” said Huntington Beach senior patrol officer Nick Ekovich.
The Westminster PD has no such policy, but deaths related to hobbled drug users in police custody are common knowledge. Displaying an eerie sense of foreboding, an unidentified Westminster PD dispatcher and officer spoke about Tuan's case by telephone that evening. In a recording of their conversation, the dispatcher asks, “Other jails have had people die from the hobble position, right?”
“Oh, yeah,” the officer responds.
“With drugs?” the dispatcher asks.
“Yeah,” the officer answers.
At the station, Schliskey's report says Tuan continued to resist and struggle and was placed into a restraint chair. “It took approximately five or six officers to hold [Tuan] until we could get him seated in the restraint chair and his feet and legs secured in the chair's soft restraints,” Schliskey reported. Gensler returned for a second evaluation. Based on Tuan's claim that he had smoked a “dipped” joint, Gensler felt even more certain that Tuan was operating under the influence of PCP.
Gensler's analysis may have led police to act cautiously around Tuan. But it was based in part on the misconception that PCP is the only drug that creative drug users dip. In fact, Uchimura explained, dipping “is a very, very potent way of delivering cocaine. [Users] take a solution and stick it right into the cigarette or whatever the joint is.”
During his time in the Westminster Jail drunk tank, Tuan was monitored by Schliskey. Bruce D. Praet, an attorney representing the police department, explained that “during detoxification . . . individuals are generally checked every 15 minutes. In this case, [Tuan] was only at the Westminster PD for a relatively brief period during which he was never left unattended.”
Praet acknowledged that “it is generally recommended that an officer have a combative arrestee suspected of being under the influence of drugs examined by paramedics.” But police didn't call for paramedics until 12:35 a.m. on Oct. 11, when Tuan's physical condition began to deteriorate rapidly. According to his report, Schliskey observed that Tuan was warm to the touch, sweating and had a high pulse rate. Paramedics reportedly found Tuan “seizing” “in restraints” and ordered him moved to Huntington Beach Medical Center. Already overdosing, Tuan's heart rate may have rocketed to 300 beats per minute, Uchimura says. It's little surprise, then, that on his way to the hospital, Tuan went into cardiac arrest.
By the time Tuan arrived at the hospital at 1:05 a.m., he was unconscious. Examiners determined that his airway was blocked, that he had lost and regained consciousness several times and had suffered recurrent seizures, and that he had fluid in his lungs, which is evidence of severe oxygen deprivation and a sign of illicit drug use.
The coroner's investigation found that Tuan's death on Oct. 17 was accidental and due to “acute cocaine intoxication.” According to a forensic scientist, concentrations of cocaine found in his blood were consistent with other reported fatal cases.
But Uchimura says, “I think in cases such as that, when there's some certainty [of drug abuse], the error should be on the side of taking [the patient] to the hospital, just in case.”
In a prepared statement a week after their son's death, Tuan's family said, “If paramedics and officers on scene rushed Tuan to the hospital as repeatedly requested by our family, our son might have lived.”