Father says miscommunication with police may have contributed to retarded son's death

August 13, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The father of a mentally retarded man who died Friday as city police officers tried to subdue him is saying that the death might have been avoided had officers more fully understood the man's limitations.

Carl Clemmons said yesterday that officers did not beat or hurt his 28-year-old son Michael, who he said had the mind of a 2-year-old. But Clemmons said miscommunication might have prolonged the struggle inside the house in the 1900 block of E. 29th St.

"I thought [the officers] acted properly," Clemmons said. "But I think there should have been a medical person here. This is a man who was retarded. This man could not talk. He could repeat words, but he could not put a sentence together."

Clemmons, himself a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair, had called police Friday because his son -- who was about 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 230 pounds -- was out of control, knocking items off shelves.

Two police officers arrived, tried to subdue Clemmons and quickly called for help. One officer suffered chest pains during the scuffle and was hospitalized briefly.

Police said that Clemmons became unresponsive and stopped breathing after they got leg irons on him and had partially cuffed his hands behind his back. He was pronounced dead at Union Memorial Hospital. Autopsy results were not complete yesterday.

The officers involved were identified as James Billing, Frank Hubbard and David Paugh. They have been placed on routine administrative duties pending the outcome of an investigation.

Yesterday, Maj. Bert L. Shirey, commander of Northeastern District, said that he spoke to Carl Clemmons after the incident and didn't notice any disapproval. "He didn't seem critical of what the officers did," he said.

Agent Ragina L. Cooper, a city police spokeswoman, noted that officers were responding to the father's call for help and went into the house expecting someone to be in danger. She said the officers tried to subdue the younger Clemmons "to make sure he didn't cause any further harm to himself or anyone else."

"Based on what officers on the scene as well as what family members who witnessed the incident told us, we have no reason to question or second-guess the actions of the officers," Cooper said.

For the Clemmons family, the situation raises questions about how officers deal with mentally handicapped people. In January, city officers shot and killed Betty Keat, a 64-year-old mentally ill woman who had barricaded herself inside her house and went after one officer with a knife.

The incident prompted a meeting between top mental health officials and police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier to discuss how such tragedies might be averted. The department agreed to beef up its training on mental illness.

Clemmons said the first two officers who arrived at his house understood they were dealing with a mentally handicapped person and treated him gently, even though one of the officers was knocked to the ground.

But he said backup officers waded in without asking questions and became more aggressive as his son tried to break free. "They kept saying, 'Stop it, stop it. Are you going to behave?' " Clemmons said. "Michael doesn't know what behave means."

Pub Date: 8/13/96

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