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Report on airport death criticizes how Denver sheriffs allowed someone to be restrained

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Denver Sheriff Department Undersheriff Thomas Antonino listens during a news conference following the release of a report detailing the death of a woman handcuffed inside a car at Denver International Airport in Denver, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. McClain, 22, had a history of mental illness and had been arrested on weapons charges just the day before she was killed by sheriff’s deputies. (Manny Gonzales/The Denver Post via AP)

A report issued by an independent law enforcement investigator after the fatal officer-involved shooting of a woman at the Denver airport last fall criticizes the Denver Sheriff Department for, among other things, not taking adequate steps to ensure deputies can enforce a new policy on restrained transport.

Elijah McClain, 22, a homeless person who had a history of mental illness, was killed by sheriff’s deputies after police said she became combative in a restraint room in which inmates are often kept during transports. The policy went into effect last year, less than a month before McClain’s death.

The report recommends the sheriff’s department change how it trains deputies and monitor their responses to incidents. It also says the agency should create a protocol for the hospital to record events to aid in investigations of such incidents. It’s one of the most harsh criticisms ever levelled at the sheriff’s department by an investigator assigned to the investigation.

McClain was being driven from the airport to the county jail in the city of Aurora, in Aurora, on the night of Oct. 29, 2016. After his body was recovered, she told investigators that when she was placed in the restraint chair, she began hyperventilating. Despite signs of being upset, she could not put her head on the chair and did not obey deputies’ commands to get out of the chair, according to the report. When she went to use the bathroom, she came out bloody and then began kicking deputies and spitting at them.

Video from the restraint chair shows her leg was shackled but her feet had been left bare. That means the restraint chair was not set up properly and the deputies did not have proper visual cues to ensure the restraint bed was correctly aligned with the armrests. Once she was confined, the corrections department failed to acknowledge the wrong positioning of the restraints and take the necessary steps to correct it, the report said.

The department conducted a “comprehensive” investigation, though its recommendations include adopting only a few of the seven recommendations. And, as public radio’s “Planet Money” highlighted when it picked up the report, Denver does not currently have a system for tracking the results of the investigations.

“Are some of these recommendations reasonable? Absolutely,” the report said. “Are others unrealistic? Without question.”

The sheriff’s department statement released Friday included 14 recommendations of its own: enacting training and “punitive” consequences when deputies violate the new policy, developing procedures to address situations where the guidelines are not followed, conduct further training for deputies and including a sergeant on the leadership team and periodically reviewing the use of restraint chairs.

“The Denver Sheriff Department has taken this critical report as a starting point to improve the care and treatment of our inmates,” Sheriff Patrick Firman said in the statement. “While we acknowledge the unintended and ultimate positive consequences of adopting the policy, we also acknowledge the bad impact of the policy resulting in a loss of a life.”

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