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Tucson police release info on death of hobbled man on meth, months after fatal incident

Damien Alvarado, 29, died after fight with TPD officers, was restrained after he fled car crash

Tucson police have finally released information on the death of a man in custody in March, weeks after Tucson Sentinel asked for an accounting of all such deaths, and more than a week after the City Council mandated "immediate" public notifications.

Damien Alvarado, 29, died after a struggle with Tucson Police Department officers and two witnesses to a hit-and-run crash that Alvarado was involved in on March 22. TPD first provided information about the case to reporters on Wednesday night.

After the struggle with officers, in which TPD said he pulled a magazine of bullets from an officer's belt, he was hobbled with restraints called "TARP," with his hand and legs bound together behind his back.

"I can't breathe," Alvarado said several times as he was restrained on the ground — for a period on his side in the "recovery position."

The cause of death determined by the Pima County Medical Examiner was "sudden cardiac arrest due to acute methamphetamine intoxication, restraint, and dilated cardiomyopathy," a news release from the Police Department said Wednesday evening.

Alvarado was pronounced dead at Banner University Medical Center at 6:30 p.m., about one hour and 15 minutes after the crash.

Document: TPD incident report on March in-custody death of Damien Alvarado

TPD did not immediately release full information about the case, including copies of all of the bodycam video and the department's internal administrative investigation. The press release from the department said that the internal probe, finished July 7, "determined that the officers’ use of force, including their restraint techniques, was appropriate and within policy. There were also determinations that certain officers’ comments violated policy."

Documents: Damien Alvarado autopsy and toxicology reports

TPD did not explain what those comments by officers were, but the video released by the department includes multiple obscene statements by officers as they struggled with Alvarado on the ground. A department spokesman said that the internal investigation report could not be released yet, until the officers involved are given the opportunity to appeal their discipline. A copy of the autopsy report was provided by the Medical Examiner on Thursday morning.

Police did release a compilation of bodycam video from the incident, and a copy of the initial police report and follow-up investigation.

TPD's criminal probe of the incident had been wrapped up at the start of June, with Alvarado's family told no charges would be filed against the officers involved.

But on June 25 — the day after TPD provided reporters with some details about the April in-custody death of Carlos Ingram-Lopez — word came down from police headquarters that the case should be sent to county prosecutors for review.

Police video

Content warning: This compilation of raw police video includes scenes of violence and death.

Crash, foot chase, fight

Alvarado, the driver of a BMW SUV, fled on foot after being involved in a high-speed crash at the intersection of East Prince Road and North Campbell Avenue around 5:15 p.m. on March 22. Two members of the public, a father and son, ran after him.

An officer arriving at the scene was told that despite what he called the "carnaage" of the crash, no one was injured and nobody was transported to the hospital.

Alvarado ran onto the grounds of a church about a block east of the crash. The father and son were trying to hold back Alvarado, who at one point tried to climb over a block wall, to keep him from fleeing when the first officer arrived on the scene. Alvarado violently resisted, and was punched by the first officer on the scene as the fleeing man was dragged down from the wall. That officer's bodycam "malfunctioned," TPD said, leaving several moments of the melee unrecorded on the video.

After another officer arrived, and they took Alvarado, 195 lbs. and 6'1" tall, to the ground.

One of the officers used a Taser on Alvarado "with no apparent effect," TPD said. As officers held him face-down in the dirt, he continued to struggle as he was handcuffed. Then, officers used a "Total Appendage Restraint Procedure" system of belting and cuffs to bind his legs together and secure them to the handcuffs behind his back.

Los Angeles and many other jurisdictions have banned the use of hobbling straps behind the back because it had been involved in fatal restraint cases. LAPD agreed to stop using TARPs in a 1997 court settlement over a deadly incident.

Several times, Alvarado yelled "I can't breathe" as he lay on his stomach. One officer used his knee to push down on Alvarado's upper back as the officers struggled with him, at times also pushing down on the man's neck with his hand.

Other officers held down the rest of Alvarado's body.

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"I can't breathe," Alvarado yelled.

"Yes you can; you're talking," one officer said.

At one point, a spit hood was placed over Alvarado's head.

"He's been in this position for a while; he's probably high; so we've got to get him on his side as soon as we can," one officer said only moments after Alvarado was fully restrained with the TARP device.

Officers rolled him on his side into the "recovery position," which officers are trained to use to make breathing easier for people being restrained, especially if they're over-exerted or under the influence. Officers then applied another TARP strap.

One officer worked to loosen Alvarado's handcuffs. "It's too tight," the man yelled."

"Stop fighting. I'm trying to make you more comfortable," an officer told him.

Alvarado was briefly rolled onto his stomach so officers could manipulate the restraints, then rolled back on to his side again.

According to the Medical Examiner's report, Alvarado's death was "ascribed to sudden cardiac arrest in the setting of acute methamphetamine intoxication and restraint with dilated cardiomyopathy as a significant contributing condition."

"I can't breathe," he said.

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"Just stop complaining and start breathing; you'll be fine," an officer said.

Unlike in TPD's other recent fatal incident, Alvarado was frequently placed on his side in the "recovery position" as police restrained him.

Officers had requested Tucson Fire Department personnel, who were in the area due to the crash, give Alvarado an examination.

"Hey, are you hurt?," one firefighter asked him.

"No," Alvarado said. "Get 'em off now; get these cuffs off now," he yelled, thrashing as officers held him down. While TPD paramedics were examining him, another spit hood was apparently placed over Alvarado's head.

According to Officer Francisco Santa Maria, it was TFD that put on the spit sock, and TFD paramedic Flex said that he saw the spit sock and that it was "subject to failure" because it was not covering the patient's face.

Captain Ford, who was leading the paramedics and firefighters, said that he heard someone ask for the spit sock.

One of the firefighters on the scene said that Alvarado's airway was clear, later telling investigators that the man was breathing and had good circulation and was moving and screaming. At first they were unable to get a blood pressure reading, because as investigators wrote, the patient was moving around too much.

Alvarado's vital signs were stable, and while his heart rate was "a little fast" that was "normal due to the altercation the patient was just in."

While he was being examined by TFD, Alvarado hit his head on the block wall, one of the firefighters later told investigators.

TFD personnel cleared Alvarado to be transported to jail, but several minutes later officers found him to not be responding. They began performing CPR, and called back fire personnel. TFD took over CPR, putting Alvarado on a gurney, in an ambulance and taking him to the hospital.

When his body was reviewed by the Medical Examiner, he was found to have numerous abrasions all over, and several hemorrhages on his head and back.

Alvarado had 133 ng/mL of amphetamine and 423 ng/mL of methamphetamine in his system, according to a post-mortem toxicology report completed April 6. He also had modest amounts of THC in his blood, along with undetermined but detected amounts of caffeine, naloxone (branded as Narcan), and cotinine (a nicotine byproduct).

Two witnesses track down man fleeing crash

Jayce Canovali and his father were at a convenience store at Prince and Campbell when they heard a "loud boom." Canovali told investigators that his father spotted Alvarado and the two tracked him down, traveling through a church parking lot until they saw him.

The elder Canovali told investigators later that when he found Alvarado, he was lying on the ground in an alleyway.

"Do you know what you did?," Canovali asked him.

"I'm so sorry, I hope they are OK," Alvarado replied.

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Justin Canovali told police later that Alvarado had been holding a metal object while lying down, but it slip off his lap when he sat up. Canovali tossed it aside, worried it might be used as a weapon, he said.

Canovali talked to the man, trying to keep him calm, as his son called 911. Alvarado tried to speak with him in Spanish, but Canovali doesn't speak the language, he told police.

"The male started playing in the dirt and asked Justin to be his 'lookout,'" the investigative report said. "Justin later explained that the male seemed high or under the influence of some type of narcotic."

As the first police officer arrived, yelling at Alvarado, the man tried to flee by climbing over the adjacent block wall.

Justin Canovali grabbed one of his legs, and the officer grabbed the other.

Jacye Canovali said that Alvarado "seemed to be overpowering his father and the officer," and he was feeling scared, so he jumped on Alvarado's back and "put him in a choke hold." Alvarado tried to bite him, and Canovali tried to choke him harder and the officer and Alvarado fell to the ground. As they struggled, Officer Nicolo Solarino punched Alvarado in the ribs, and then later struck him three times in the face "with a closed fist."

As Canovali backed away, Solarino used his Taser on Alvarado in the right thigh, and then Tased him again one to two more times.

According to data from investigators, Solarino's Taser was used three times, once for five seconds, once for one second, and for a third time at five seconds.

Video released by TPD shows Solarino battling with Alvarado as another man — Canovali's father — tried to hold him in a bear hug, and then both men fell backwards, collapsing near a small bush. Solarino's taser was visible, and here Solarino's body-camera stopped recording. TPD said the officer's camera "malfunctioned and shut itself down."

TPD video also presents the altercation from a different point of view, showing Officer Yeandle, who came running up. For a few seconds, there WAS no audio, but Yeandle ran forward from his vehicle and came upon Solarino using his Taser against the Alvarado. A magazine for a service pistol could be clearly seen on the ground.

For several minutes, the two officers struggled with Alvarado, who writhed and moved under the men. Yeandle twisted Alvarado's arm, yelling "Stop, stop moving."

"Stop Tasing me, motherfucker," Alvarado yelled.

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"Then stop moving," one of the officers said. The other said to him, "Stop moving your hands, asshole. Right now."

"I'm going to fuck you up," Alavardo threatened the officers, his face pressed into the dirt of the alleyway as more officers pin him down, and he continues to strain against his cuffs.

For a few moments, the camera was covered, as Alvarado appeared to be pushing against the officer.

Another officer told Alvarado as he tried to cuff him, "If you don't stop I'm going to break your arm."

After cuffing Alvarado, the officers applied the TARP strap, pulling his legs up behind him to loop a section of it around his ankles.

As TPD put it, the device was "hastily applied on the suspect's ankles to prevent kicking."

"Once there were enough officers to do so safely, they attempted to place another TARP on the suspect to secure him for medical attention," TPD wrote in the released video.

"Don't grab my fuckin' dick, bro," one of the cops warned Alvarado.

As Alvarado lay on his side in the alley, he began yelling, "I can't breathe."

"Yes, you can, you're talking," responded Solarino, who told the man to stop complaining and just breathe.

"Stop talking, stop complaining, just start breathing, you'll be fine," said the officer.

'Is he still breathing?'

As TFD checked out Alvarado, he grew quieter, moaning rather than shouting. The TFD crew left his side after about seven minutes, but stood nearby for several minutes taking with other officers on the scene.

Several officers then searched the man, looking for a wallet.

One officer knelt by Alvarado's head, and another next to his torso, with the man positioned near a block wall.

No sounds from Alvarado were captured by the video for several minutes, as he laid still on the ground.

At least four or five officers were within a step of him.

Four minutes after TFD stopped examining Alvarado, another officer walked up, asking if he'd been searched.

"I did the best I could; I couldn't find no wallet or any ID," an officer said.

"Double-check it," a different officer said.

Some officers began patting at Alvarado again, preparing to move his legs.

"Is he still breathing?," one asked.

"Yeah," an officer said.

"Is he still breathing?," the same officer asked.

"I dunno," an officer muttered.

"Roll him over," a couple of officers said.

"Feel his chest," one said.

"No, his eyes are rolling," another said.

"Is meds leaving? Let's get 'em back," one yelled in the distance.

"He sounds like he's gurgling something," an officer said.

"Go and start compression....," one said.

Officers rolled Alvarado and one made sure the spit hood was still pulled down over his face and started CPR, vigorously pushing on his chest.

"Cardiac arrest," an officer yelled.

There were thick wet sounds as Alvarado's chest was compressed.

After about 30 seconds, one officer pulled up the spit hood.

After about a minute of CPR, a cry of "unhook 'im" went up among several officers observing. Alvarado's hands were still cuffed behind his back, and his legs still bound together and strapped to the handcuffs.

CPR stopped, and officers rolled him over and removed the handcuffs. They used shears to cut the TARP strap on his legs.

They then grabbed his arms and legs and boosted his limp, dangling body onto a gurney, which had been carried over next to him by TFD personnel.

A firefighter began compression CPR on Alvarado as he lay on the gurney.

He was taken to Banner UMC, where he was pronounced dead at 6:30 p.m.

Tucson police holding back info on in-custody deaths for months

TPD has been under fire for withholding information about the death of Carlos Adrian Ingram-Lopez in April, with the department only acknowledging that fatal incident and releasing limited information after a TucsonSentinel.com investigative report revealed it to the public two weeks ago.

In discussing Ingram-Lopez's death, TPD Chief Chris Magnus did not indicate to the public that there had been another recent in-custody death. With both internal city sources and outside tipsters indicating to the Sentinel that there had been another fatal incident but with details scanty, we asked on June 23 for a complete account of everyone who died while in TPD custody between January 2015 and and that date. A week later, we again pressed TPD to provide information.

No information was provided until the press release was sent to a number of local news outlets the evening of July 8.

Multiple city sources have indicated that both the deaths of Ingram-Lopez and the previously unreported death of Alvarado are being referred to a Sentinel Incident Review Board convened by the city — a process formerly called a Critical Incident Review Board.

The five "focus officers" who were first on the scene spoke with a lawyer provided by the police union and stood on their 5th Amendment rights to not be questioned in the criminal investigation into the incident, a TPD account of the investigation said.

Per TPD's account, the autopsy report on Alvarado was signed on May 7, and provided to police on June 10. The department decided to close the potential criminal case against the officers the next day.

The criminal investigation in the case was initially closed on June 11, with a TPD investigator telling a meeting that included his chain of command and Assistant Chief Carla Johnson that he "had seen no criminal actions by the officers." Alvarado's sister was told that day that the criminal investigation was being closed.

But on June 25, that investigator was "notified by my chain of command that the facts of this case should be presented to the Pima County Attorney's Office. I was informed that the decision had come from Deputy Chief (Chad) Kasmar."

TPD's criminal investigation of Alvarado's death was forwarded to the Pima County Attorney's Office on June 26. The prosecutors have not yet made a determination regarding the case, TPD said. The internal investigation was completed on Tuesday, July 7, TPD said.

City Council mandates public notice of deaths in police custody

Last Tuesday, prompted by the long delay in notifying the public as well as the elected mayor and members of the City Council, the Council voted 6-0 to mandate "immediate notification" to city leadership and the public "similar to the level of notifications sent out" when someone is shot by police.

Magnus had earlier set a new TPD policy of having top police leaders review video and other records of all in-custody deaths within two days, rather than allowing lower-level officers to hold information back from administrators. But he made no move to establish policies about informing city leaders or the public about in-custody deaths.

In Wednesday night's release, TPD said that "we intend to notify the public about these deaths within 72 hours, unless there are legal impediments to doing so. That includes publicly posting at least some of the relevant body-worn camera video."

According to city sources, it took more than a week to comply with the Council's new mandate and release any information to the public — information that had been requested more than two weeks ago by the Tucson Sentinel — because Alvarado's family had pushed the city to hold back on releasing the information, including filing suit to keep the video of the incident from being made public. A judge rejected that Wednesday, they said. City Attorney Mike Rankin did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the case Wednesday evening.

Several members of the Council told the Sentinel that they first learned of Alvarado's death in custody last Wednesday, the day after they voted in the policy of immediate public notifications. Councilman Paul Cunningham said he was informed that there had been another recent fatal incident at the same time he was told about the death of Ingram-Lopez, but that he wasn't given many details.

Hogtying banned in many departments

Hogtying is a form of TARP — Total Appendage Restraint Procedure — that involves placing a suspect in a prone position with wrists immobilized by handcuffs, and legs immobilized with a hobble restraint.  A hobble device is typically a lightweight nylon or polymer belt — 42 to 52 inches long and about an inch wide–with a loop and self-locking clip — long enough to bind the ankles to handcuffed wrists of an individual.

Often, the hand and leg restraints are connected together in such a way that results in the slight elevation of the suspect's upper and lower body. That can result in some people suffocating under the weight of their own bodies, especially when the technique is used on overweight, excited, intoxicated or drug-affected people.

Studies have shown that hogtying can interfere with breathing and increase the risk of positional asphxia, and its use has been banned by several police departments across the country over the past 30 years. The Los Angeles Police Department banned the practice in 1997 after fatal incidents. New York police had banned it a decade before.

LAPD's policy had called for leaving slack between the legs and arms, so that a person could be placed in a seated position. Even so, in-custody deaths kept occurring when TARP restraints were applied, according to a 1997 LA Times report. Los Angeles paid out millions of dollars in several settlements of lawsuits over deaths attributed to TARP hogtying.

Multiple courts across the country have ruled against departments that have used TARP restraints and had in-custody deaths.

TARP-type restraints are typically used against combative suspects, who often are intoxicated and difficult to control. The device allows for transporting prisoners while preventing them from kicking officers, paramedics or car windows in an attempt to escape.

A TARP was used on Alvarado, but from the video released by TPD, it appears that his legs were only pulled up behind him to allow officers to initially put the strap around his ankles. In much of the video, his legs can be seen slightly extended, with his knees bent and the strap running up the back of his legs to his cuffed hands.

TPD's general orders regarding "use of force" equate the use of a TARP or spit sock with using handcuffs, requiring notification to a supervisor when those devices are used.

TPD: 5 in-custody death involving some form of restraints over past decade

There have been five people who died while in Tucson police custody over the past 10 years in incidents that involved some form of restraints.

"'Restraints' can be as minimal as the use of handcuffs or can involve other use of force. Over the past 10 years, it has not been the department’s practice to issue press notifications of these deaths, for a number of reasons. However, these cases have been made available to the public upon request as public records," TPD said Wednesday evening.

"Going forward, we intend to notify the public about these deaths within 72 hours, unless there are legal impediments to doing so," TPD said. "That includes publicly posting at least some of the relevant body-worn camera (BWC) video."

From the department's Wednesday release:

Of these five in-custody deaths, one occurred in 2010, two occurred in 2012, and two occurred in 2020. There is no way to compare numbers of in-custody deaths in Tucson to a national average because police agencies across the country track such deaths in vastly different ways. Relevant case materials for these past incidents will be made available, but it is important to remember that TPD officers did not have BWCs in 2010 and 2012, so video of these incidents, to the degree it exists, is limited to their in-car cameras and footage from private business CCTV cameras.

Two weeks ago, just hours after breaking the news of the Ingram-Lopez death, the Sentinel requested TPD provide "a listing of all deaths of persons in the custody of the Tucson Police Department, or deaths resulting from actions by a TPD officer, between January 2015 and today."

We asked the city to provide, for each incident, "the date; name, age, gender and ethnicity of the deceased; location (street address) of the incident; the identities of the TPD officer(s) involved; any disciplinary action resulting; and any comments/descriptions/summaries you wish to explain each death."

TPD still has yet to provide much of the information it is required to release about the death of Ingram-Lopez, not has it responded with the information about all in-custody deaths.

'Framework for change'

After the death of Ingram-Lopez was revealed two months after it took place, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero said "we must center the conversation on police accountability."

"It's not acceptable that mayor and Council and the public were not notified of this event," she said, calling for a "new framework to change how we serve our community."

Romero said that the Community Police Advisory Review Board needs to have broader abilities to review incidents and suggest changes.

She also called for strengthening the independent police auditor, and setting up a "community safety division" to coordinate mental health resources, social workers and other services with law enforcement.

TucsonSentinel.com’s Paul Ingram and Maria Coxon-Smith contributed to this report.


This original news reporting was partly supported by the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, which awarded Sentinel Editor Dylan Smith a Brechner Reporting Fellowship to pursue in-depth journalism about government secrecy.

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1 comment on this story

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50 comments
Jul 9, 2020, 6:44 am
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“Anonymous poster on the Internet releases info on the death of a hobbled police man in blue uniform months he disappeared.”

If the above had been the story, there would be a clamor to deliver justice. We must generate outrage loud enough to reach the heavens themselves if we want salvation and delivery from evil.

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Tucson police restraining Damien Alvarado after a struggle on March 22. Alvarado, who was on meth, died of a heart attack after being restrained by police.

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