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Man dies in custody after restraint hold by Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies

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A suspect in a stolen-vehicle pursuit outside Sebastopol died Wednesday morning after Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies attempted to put him in a restraint hold meant to induce unconsciousness and then placed him in handcuffs, the Sheriff’s Office said.

The man, a Sonoma County resident whose name was withheld by the Sheriff’s Office pending notification of his family, was reported to have experienced “a medical emergency” after being taken into custody. Life-saving efforts at the scene — Sutton Road in Bloomfield — were unsuccessful and he was taken to Petaluma Valley Hospital, where he died, according to the Sheriff’s Office and Santa Rosa police.

The Santa Rosa Police Department is investigating the encounter under the county’s protocol for serious or fatal law enforcement incidents. Neither the Santa Rosa agency nor the Sheriff’s Office was able to provide a detailed timeline of the pursuit nor the moments leading up to the man’s death, citing the ongoing investigation.

Authorities encountered the man sometime after 5:41 a.m. as they were looking in the area of Frei Road and Guerneville Road east of Graton for a vehicle stolen during a carjacking. The crime happened sometime Sunday in Sonoma County and the license plate of the car the man was driving Wednesday morning matched the stolen vehicle’s, Sonoma County Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Juan Valencia said.

Radio traffic indicated authorities located the vehicle about 5:49 a.m., Santa Rosa Police Lt. Dan Marincik said. A deputy and two Sebastopol police officers sought to pull over the driver on Bloomfield Road near Murray Road south of Sebastopol, the Sheriff’s Office reported. The driver, who was alone in the car, initially pulled over, then sped away, prompting a pursuit, authorities said.

An attempt by pursuing officers to stop the fleeing car by veering into it was unsuccessful. The pursuit ended several miles away on Sutton Road west of Petaluma, where deputies used their vehicles to box in the fleeing car, the Sheriff’s Office said.

The driver fought with deputies as they tried to arrest him, the department said, though officials did not elaborate on the nature of the struggle or whether it took place inside or outside the vehicle. They used a Taser on the driver, but he continued to resist arrest. Deputies then attempted to use a carotid restraint — a type of stranglehold that puts pressure on the carotid artery and causes a person to lose consciousness — the Sheriff’s Office reported. The tactic involves putting one’s arm around a suspect’s neck in a V shape and putting pressure on each side to block blood from flowing to the brain.

The restraint is permitted under the Sheriff’s Office use-of-force policy under specific circumstances if the deputy is trained in the tactic. They include when deputies believe a person is violent or shows that they intend to harm themselves, deputies or others.

When applied incorrectly, however, the restraint can turn into a chokehold and block the suspect’s airways, which can be fatal. A chokehold was used during the high-profile in-custody death of Eric Garner in 2014, who was arrested by officers for selling untaxed cigarettes in New York City’s Staten Island.

Information on whether the hold was applied properly in the local incident was not available Wednesday. Marincik said it was too early to tell whether the hold or the use of a Taser contributed to the man’s death.

Sheriff’s officials did not say if the man lost consciousness or stopped breathing. He experienced a medical emergency after he was placed in handcuffs, prompting deputies to begin life-saving measures and summon medical help, the agency said.

Police have located body-worn-camera video of the incident, which will be used by Santa Rosa investigators in their review of the incident, Marincik said. The Marin County Coroner’s Office will handle a separate death investigation and autopsy that investigators will also rely on, he added. Officers will forward their findings to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, which will then determine whether any criminal charges are warranted in the man’s death.

“Our role is gathering all those facts and conducting a complete investigation to understand what occurred,” Marincik said.

The Sheriff’s Office will conduct an internal review to determine whether deputies followed department policies. Valencia said he did not know how many Sheriff’s deputies were involved in Wednesday’s incident, though he confirmed they were placed on administrative leave in accordance to Sheriff’s Office procedures after critical incidents.

“Any time force is used the Sheriff’s Office takes it seriously,” Valencia said in a written statement. “Our thoughts are with the man’s family during this difficult time.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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