EL CENTRO, Calif. (CN) – The desert city of El Centro has paid the largest police misconduct settlement in the history of the Southern District of California – $4.1 million – to the family of Charlie Sampson, a man who was denied medical attention during an overdose while in police custody and died as a result.
In a phone interview with Courthouse News, Sampson’s wife Laverne said police officers “took away my everything” the evening of Dec. 3, 2013, when they stopped Sampson a couple blocks from his house for rolling through a stop sign. Officers found a meth pipe and shotgun in Sampson’s truck and took him back to his house to do a probation check.
At some point, Sampson ingested an unknown quantity of methamphetamine, and his family noticed he was “sick” and not behaving like himself. Sampson could not walk straight, his speech was slurred and he was sweating through his shirt even though it was a cold, windy December night.
Sampson’s family pleaded with officers to get medical attention for the father of two, but the officers told them Sampson was just “nervous” because he “knew he was going to jail” and that he was “putting on a show.”
The family can be heard pleading with officers to get Sampson medical help and asking, “Why is he walking like that?” in footage from a body-worn camera on one of the officers.
“We could immediately tell something was wrong, his whole demeanor had changed,” Laverne Sampson said.
“My son asked what was wrong, but the police said nothing was wrong, that he was scared because he was going to jail and had messed up. The back of his shirt was soaking wet and he couldn’t walk. My son tried to give him a jacket but the officers just let it fall to the ground.”
Sampson’s niece who worked at a dialysis clinic also asked officers to check her uncle’s vital signs but was denied.
Eventually, Sampson’s family members tried to call 911 to get paramedics to the scene. One of the officers searching their home beat them to the punch, however, calling dispatchers and telling them to ignore any calls from the family because Sampson was “putting on a show” and didn’t really need medical attention. When Sampson’s sister-in-law Denise Campbell called 911 she was hung up on, according to the family’s lawsuit.
Sampson was later carried from his house where officers did an unsuccessful probation compliance search for drugs using a drug-sniffing dog. He had to be physically put in the back of the police car because he could not hold himself up.
Laverne Sampson’s attorney Danielle Pena with Morris Law Firm in San Diego said Sampson’s legs were “like spaghetti” when they carried him to the car, and said when Sampson was brought to the police station and booked into jail he was lying on the ground “with officers literally stepping over him.”
Pena said when a “rookie” officer was asked to transport Sampson to county jail, he radioed his supervisor saying Sampson needed to be taken to the hospital instead.
Sampson suffered cardiac arrest in route to the hospital was pronounced dead on arrival. He died nearly four hours after he was first stopped by police for running the stop sign.
Pena said the Sampson case sheds light on the “systemic inadequacies” in officer training.
“The settlement speaks volumes. This is a very, very expensive ‘we got it wrong’ settlement. They’re never going to admit liability, but this is like yelling on top of the roof: ‘We got it wrong and those actions led to this man’s death.’ Because it is the largest police misconduct settlement in the Southern District, that is their admission of guilt,” Pena said.
Courthouse News left multiple phone messages and emails for the El Centro City Attorney’s Office and police department, but the requests for comment were not answered.
Pena said during discovery in the case, police dispatchers turned over recordings of 911 calls the night Sampson died. Out of 300-400 calls captured by the recording system, a 911 call by Laverne’s sister Denise was the only call that somehow was not recorded or went missing and wasn’t turned over.
Contrary to the industry standard where most police departments have protocol or training polices officers must adhere to regarding medical attention and interventions for suspects or citizens they interact with, Pena said, the El Centro Police Department has no policy on medical care and intervention. Within the department, it’s up to the responding officer’s discretion to decide if someone needs medical attention.
The city was unwilling to consider implementing medical-related policies within the police department as part of the settlement with the Sampson family and wanted to settle monetarily alone, Pena said.
But the officer’s decision to call dispatchers and prevent paramedics from responding to the scene is what Laverne believes led to her husband’s death. Pena said canceling 911 calls was an unwritten policy among lower-ranking officers who acknowledged interfering with calls during depositions related to the Sampson case.
The attorney said high-ranking officials within the department had no idea officers were calling off 911 calls. But once they found out, no officers were punished for doing so, she said.
An internal investigation into Sampson’s death found no wrongdoing by the officers involved and no criminal charges have been filed. The Morris Law Firm has been in contact with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding Sampson’s case and settlement, but it has yet to open an investigation.
Laverne Sampson said she thought the death of her husband, who she’d been with for 38 years, would “break her,” Instead, she said it’s made her stronger.
“It’s changed our lives tremendously,” Sampson said.
“Settling doesn’t take the place of his life, but it lets the police know that you can’t do that, that’s a person’s life they messed with, they took ‘my everything’ away from me and made a great mistake that night.”