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PD Editorial: A crime report, a victim killed and no clear answers

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David Glen Ward’s death is a tragic puzzle.

Ward, 52, died shortly after being placed in a carotid restraint — a technique akin to a chokehold — by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy who believed he was subduing a car thief and recovering a stolen vehicle, according to police reports.

Investigators subsequently determined that Ward was the rightful owner of the car.

That’s a tragedy.

Here’s the puzzle: Investigators say Ward struggled with officers who stopped him outside Sebastopol on Nov. 27 instead of telling them that he had recovered his 2003 Honda Civic, which he had reported stolen in an armed carjacking several days earlier.

That, too, is tragic.

We hope investigators are able to sort out why he didn’t explain, for the sake of his family and the officers involved in this strange incident.

Ward’s death also focuses attention on a state law that, effective Jan. 1, allows officers to use deadly force “only when necessary in defense of human life.” Law enforcement agencies, and ultimately the courts, will need to determine how that standard applies in unusual cases like this one.

Another new law, this one requiring the release of body-camera video following shootings and fatal incidents, may help the public assess what happened and draw their own conclusions about the necessity for a forcible arrest.

Sheriff Mark Essick already set a good precedent after an officer-involved shooting on July 4. Essick quickly releasing the body-camera video, as required, and added video from nearby private surveillance cameras and audio of public safety dispatchers to show a frightening sequence of events culminating in the shooting of a man accused of hitting four pedestrians while driving recklessly through a Bodega Bay neighborhood.

Santa Rosa police, who are investigating Ward’s death, released a written summary on Monday.

They said Ward pulled over briefly when officers tried to stop him and then drove away. When he was finally stopped about seven minutes later, investigators say he fought with four officers as they tried to pull him from the car.

They struck him with “personal body weapons” and used a stun gun before Deputy Charlie Blount reached through a window and administered a carotid restraint, investigators said.

Ward was handcuffed and placed on the ground. Several minutes later, the officers noticed that he had stopped breathing. He died at Petaluma Valley Hospital.

There are obvious questions about Ward’s physical and mental condition. Family members say he was in poor health and often needed a wheelchair and oxygen, though the police summary says he struggled and bit two of the arresting officers.

As of Monday, investigators hadn’t determined whether Blount was trained in the use of a carotid restraint — a prerequisite for using one under the Sonoma County sheriff’s use-of-force policy. The maneuver is designed to stop blood flow to the brain and knock some unconscious, but used improperly, it can be fatal. Some law enforcement agencies allow it only in life-threatening situations.

Police have a tough job, and they are given wide latitude to use force when necessary. But there is no greater violation of liberty than the loss of a life. Each one requires a thorough, transparent and public accounting.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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