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Oakland Settles Family’s Wrongful Death Suit

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The city of Oakland has settled a wrongful death suit accusing five police officers of killing a man wrongly suspected of invading his own home.

Hernan Jaramillo, 51, died from asphyxiation under the weight of five police officers attempting to subdue him in front of his house on the 2300 block of 21st Street in Oakland on July 8, 2013.

Jaramillo's sister, Ana Biocini, called the police after she heard loud noises coming from her brother's bedroom. She locked herself in her room, fearing an intruder had entered the house and assaulted her brother, according to the lawsuit.

When police arrived, Biocini handed the officers house keys through her bedroom window. After entering the home, the officers knocked on Jaramillo's bedroom door. As soon as her brother opened the door, the officers "immediately grabbed" him and forcibly removed him from the house even though his sister identified him as a resident of the home, according to the suit.

Outside the house, a neighbor also identified Jaramillo as a resident and "implored" the officers to stop assaulting him. Still, the police threw Jaramillo to the ground face-first and pushed their combined weight down on him, Biocini claimed.

"One officer pressed his knee into Mr. Jaramillo's back while other officers used their weight to hold him down. Mr. Jaramillo screamed out for help and strained to breathe under the collective weight of the four or five defendant officers," the lawsuit states.

Biocini says her brother "pleaded with the officers that if they did not let him breathe, he would die."

When the officers flipped Jaramillo's body over, he was covered in blood, "limp and seemingly lifeless," and his head dropped back loudly on the pavement, according to the complaint filed on July 22, 2014.

The city was expected to argue a motion for partial summary judgment in the lawsuit Monday, but that hearing was canceled after a settlement was reached on Jan. 8.

Neither the city nor the family's attorney, the John Burris Law Firm, has released the settlement amount. However, the amount will be made public when the Oakland City Council votes on whether to approve the agreement later this month.

"My clients were satisfied with the settlement that was offered," said the family's attorney Dewitt Lacy. "The city definitely recognized some potential liabilities and risks going to trial, as did we. For that reason, we came to a reasonable settlement."

Alex Katz of the Oakland City Attorney's Office declined to comment on the settlement but confirmed the agreement will be presented to the city council for approval on Jan. 19.

In its motion for partial summary judgment, the city argued the officers had reasonable suspicion to detain Jaramillo and that state law allows officers to take a person into custody if they suspect a mental health issue poses a safety risk to the individual or others.

"That was the heart of this case - whether the officers had a right to detain him in the matter that they did," Lacy said. "Our contention was they could have ascertained the identity of Mr. Jaramillo without taking him out of his house, and even if they did need to take him out of his house, [they could have made] sure everything was safe."

Lacy called the officers' decision to continue using force to detain Jaramillo after his identity was revealed "unlawful and unnecessary."

The civil rights attorney suggested the police department might better train officers about the dangers of "positional asphyxia" and on how to deal with someone who may be hyperventilating or suffering from a medical condition that prevents one from breathing while in a prone position with weight on their back.

After forcing someone to the ground, Lacy said police should attempt to return that person to an upright position, especially if that person is complaining they can't breathe.

"Law enforcement has to take due care and be diligent when making an arrest," Lacy said. "Perhaps retraining and a thorough examination of this by the police department would result in showing officers the necessary actions they need to take in this circumstance in the future."

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