Early on the afternoon of June 4, 2012, Vachel Howard was handcuffed to a bench inside the Los Angeles Police Department’s 77th Street Station Jail. He was 56 years old, and had been taken into custody for driving while intoxicated. The grandfather of seven had been strip-searched, and his shirt still hung open. Howard told the officers present that he suffered from schizophrenia. Police suspected he was high on cocaine.
Less than an hour later, Howard was pronounced dead at Good Samaritan Hospital, just miles from the jail. He had been released from the handcuffs, but later subdued by half a dozen officers after he became, by their testimony, “violent and combative.” A coroner eventually listed three contributing causes of death: cocaine intoxication, heart disease, and a chokehold employed by one of the officers.
Two years of litigation followed before, in October of 2015, the city of Los Angeles agreed to pay Howard’s family $2.85 million to settle a wrongful death claim.
The legal fight included dozens of depositions and competing medical opinions and claims of responsibility, all of them publicly filed in federal court in Los Angeles. What never became public, however, were 30 minutes of video showing Howard’s death inside the 77th Street Station Jail — recordings of a sequence of events that had enraged a family and cost Los Angeles taxpayers nearly $3 million. The tapes — recorded by two fixed cameras in the jail — had been filed with the judge in the case, S. James Otero, but when ProPublica requested the footage, Otero’s clerk said he was unsure if the judge still had it, and that the judge’s practice was not to make such material available to the news media. The police department denied a request for any video and the city attorney’s office said it didn’t have the footage.
ProPublica has now obtained copies of the tapes, and is publishing them in the interest of establishing a more complete public record of a controversial and costly death. The videos…