Officers acted properly in death of man, police say

Chief, union president defend actions taken at Southern District lockup

Internal investigation continuing

April 11, 2002|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The Howard County police chief and the police union president said they believe officers acted appropriately in their handling of an Annapolis man who died during the weekend in a holding cell at the Southern District police station.

"As far as I can determine without the internal investigation being completed and without knowing the autopsy results, I feel comfortable at this point with what the officers did," Chief Wayne Livesay said, noting that an internal investigation is continuing.

Lawyers for the family of Michael Keliher Donahue, 32, said yesterday that the family might soon file a lawsuit against police. Donahue's relatives retained David Schertler and Mark E. Schamel of the Washington-based law firm of Coburn & Schertler to pursue the case, Schamel said.

Family and police are waiting for autopsy results to see why Donahue died less than 12 hours after police arrested him Friday on suspicion of drunken driving.

Police said they suspect Donahue was under the influence of clonazepam, an anti-seizure and anti-anxiety drug that they found in his vehicle. Court documents show that he was twice convicted of fraudulently obtaining prescription medications.

Howard police approached Donahue and his brother, John, after someone reported a white van had blown a tire after hitting a curb on Montgomery Road in Elkridge. John Donahue, 30, was not arrested.

John Donahue's memory of the arrest differs with a police account on several points, including whether he told police his brother had medical problems and whether police failed to call Animal Control for the Donahues' dog.

Michael Donahue failed a field sobriety test but later registered a zero on a Breathalyzer, police said.

An officer certified as a drug recognition expert assessed Donahue's actions and physical characteristics and determined he was under the influence of a hallucinogen, police said.

Livesay said officers followed procedure when they detained Donahue in a holding cell with five other men after he was analyzed by the drug recognition expert.

James F. Fitzgerald, president of the Howard County police union, said he also is confident that officers acted in accordance with the department's general orders.

"We don't deviate from our procedures," Fitzgerald said. "Every arrest we have, we have a set procedure to follow."

Howard police general orders call for officers in the suspect detention area to notify a supervisor and call for medical assistance if a prisoner "requires or requests emergency medical treatment."

"They're not doctors," Fitzgerald said about police officers. "But like any good human being, if they think someone's life is in danger, they summon medical help."

Police did not call for medical assistance because Donahue never exhibited signs of medical distress, Livesay said.

"I don't think registering a double zero on the Breathalyzer is an automatic that someone has to go to the hospital," Livesay said. "There has to be something besides the double zero."

But a negative Breathalyzer test is enough to warrant calling for medical attention in a neighboring jurisdiction.

In Anne Arundel County, if a person who appears to be drunk registers a zero on two chemical tests for alcohol, "the subject must be taken immediately to a hospital," according to a county police written directive.

Even with a policy requiring officers to seek medical attention for anyone who is not drunk but is behaving erratically, deaths can occur.

"It's just a fact of the job, unfortunately," said O'Brien Atkinson, president of the Anne Arundel County Fraternal Order of Police.

In December 2000, a 20-year-old Calvert County man with a history of mental illness died shortly after Anne Arundel police arrested him on suspicion of drunken driving. He was not given a Breathalyzer test.

Philip A. Montgomery had ingested antifreeze and died in his holding cell. Officer Charles R. Atwell was fired after an internal investigation found that he had violated county police policy by failing to seek medical attention for Montgomery.

Just as in the Howard case, police said the suspected drunken man was reportedly snoring loudly in his cellblock just before he died.

Soon after the Anne Arundel death, police union leaders advised officers to err on the side of caution when dealing with people who could possibly need medical attention.

"Things have changed since then," Atkinson said. "We were careful before, but now we're extra careful. Everyone's really watching their P's and Q's."

The Howard police union has not advised officers to do anything differently since the weekend lockup death, Fitzgerald said.

"We just follow our procedure," Fitzgerald said. "We're sticklers for policy here."

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