An officer of the Visalia Police Department knelt on the neck of a man in handcuffs, resulting in his death, a lawsuit filed in Tulare County Superior Court on November 30 alleges. Named as defendants in the case are the city of Visalia and the officers allegedly responsible for the death of Allan Aguirre on November 1, 2022.
Erratic Behavior Call Led to Death in Custody
According to the lawsuit, a 911 call reporting a person “acting erratically” at a strip-mall and gas station at the corner of Lovers Lane and Nobel Avenue in Visalia led to an interaction between the responding VPD officer and Aguirre, who was experiencing an obvious medical emergency.
The event was captured on video.
“What the officer initially saw, as depicted on video from the officer’s body camera, was Mr. Aguirre sitting down against a building wall next to a trash bin. There were a number of individuals standing around him and to the side,” the suit states. “Mr. Aguirre was screaming in pain holding his stomach. Mr. Aguirre was in such pain that the only verbal response he could give the officer was his name. Other than that communication, Mr. Aguirre simply screamed in pain while sitting down against the wall, he was not attempting to move nor flee.”
According to the suit, the officer should have immediately summoned medical aid.
“Instead, he arrested Mr. Aguirre,” the court filing states. “The officer went to where Mr. Aguirre was sitting, in stomach pain, minding his own business, and physically forced Mr. Aguirre to stand up, even though Mr. Aguirre had great difficulty doing so.”
According to the case – filed by Visalia attorney Douglas Hurt on behalf of Aguirre’s mother, Marcia Villanueva – Aguirre began to struggle in pain as the officer attempted to place him in handcuffs by pulling his arms behind his back. The officer then placed the handcuffed Aguirre facedown on the ground and knelt on his upper back and neck until Aguirre died moments later.
“Once Mr. Aguirre was face down on the ground, with his hands cuffed behind his back, the officer then knelt down with his knee just below Mr. Aguirre’s neck, in his back,” the suit states. “Mr. Aguirre struggled for a short time being in that position. The officer then watched Mr. Aguirre’s leg flop and struggle, and then slowly stop moving as Mr. Aguirre died.”
The suit alleges Aguirre’s death was a direct result of his treatment at the hands of police and the officer’s failure to summon prompt medical aid before and after taking Aguirre into custody.
“The officer waited until Mr. Aguirre appeared to have died before calling emergency medical care to come to the scene,” the suit said.
Illegal Choke Hold
The restraining hold apparently used by the VPD officer is similar to the hold that led to the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minn. in 2020. That death, also caught on video, led to the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement and calls for reforming policing.
Such so-called “carotid holds,” which cut off the blood supply to the brain, are banned in California. Department of Justice data reported by the Los Angeles Times shows that between 2016 and 2018, 103 people were “seriously injured” by officers using carotid neck holds. Two of those incidents resulted in the death of the individuals being detained.
Carotid holds were outlawed for all police agencies in California in 2020.
The suit against the city claims the officer’s response was not only illegal, but entirely unwarranted.
“Again, when the first officer arrived at the scene, Mr. Aguirre was sitting down against the wall in severe physical pain that was obvious to the officer. Mr. Aguirre was not moving, was not trying to flee, was not a threat to anyone, including the numerous bystanders that were around him,” the suit states.
The officer’s failure to summon medical help led directly to Aguirre’s death, the suit contends.
City Failed to Protect Aguirre
According to attorney Hurt, the city’s lack of proper training and oversight of its police officers led directly to the behavior that resulted in Aguirre’s death. According to the court filing, the city hired and maintained inadequately trained police officers.
The city, the suit alleges, failed to properly “supervise, discipline, train, control and review” officers’ conduct.
The death of Aguirre while in police custody, Hurt said, was the fallout of that behavior by city leaders.
“The question is: Are they responsible?” Hurt said. “Our opinion is they are.”
City leaders, by rejecting a liability claim resulting from the officer’s alleged involvement in Aguirre’s death, have reaffirmed the supposed negligent behavior on their part, Hurt said.
At the time of his death, Aguirre was under the influence of narcotics, Hurt said, and the city has claimed that was the primary cause of Aguirre’s death.
Hurt, however, maintains the situation with Aguirre was a medical emergency, not a criminal one.
“He had a drug problem. He had drugs in his system,” Hurt said.”Our position is this was a medical emergency.”
A case management conference to determine how the case will proceed is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on Friday, March 29.