California deputy on leave after violently removing carjacking victim from vehicle, sheriff says

Posted at 11:18 PM, Dec 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-24 01:18:22-05

(CNN) — Believing they had stopped a stolen car after a miles-long pursuit, two California sheriff’s deputies tried to arrest a carjacking victim, who died after the encounter in which one deputy appears to slam the man’s skull into a car door and put him in a neck hold as the other deputy twice deployed his Taser.

Body camera video from last month’s incident begins mid-chase, during which authorities say David Ward, 52, twice stopped for deputies only to flee again. Speeds at one point reach 73 mph before a deputy, trailed by two officers from the Sebastopol Police Department, stop Ward at a dead end in Bloomfield, about a 30-minute drive southwest of Santa Rosa.

Deputies Charlie Blount and Jason Little, veterans with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, try to extract Ward from the car, but they struggle because Ward’s legs are apparently pinned beneath the steering wheel.

Both deputies exclaim that Ward bites them during the arrest attempt, and the body camera footage shows Blount pull Ward’s head out of the car window by his hair. Just as Little deploys his Taser for the first time, Blount appears to smash Ward’s head into the top of the car door.

After deputies and officers remove Ward from the car, Deputy Nick Jax informs his counterparts that Ward had no reason to run because he was a carjacking victim, not a car thief — to which Blount responds, “Oh well.”

Seconds later, the body camera video shows police saying “He’s not breathing anymore,” and Blount orders another law enforcement officer to begin CPR.

Officer on leave

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick handed Blount a notice of termination, and the deputy will remain on administrative leave until the investigation is complete and all appeals have been exhausted, the sheriff said in a Friday video statement.

“What our deputies did not know at the time was that Mr. Ward was not only the owner of the car, but the victim of the earlier carjacking,” Essick said. “The suspect had pistol-whipped him and stole his car. Mr. Ward had recovered the car but failed to report it. It remains a mystery as to why he fled from our deputies.”

Harry Stern, who is representing Blount, said Ward is responsible for his own death because he took “bizarre actions” that left deputies thinking he was an armed carjacker rather than a carjacking victim.

Stern said that it is his understanding that medical evidence will show Ward had a pre-existing medical condition and methamphetamine in his system. There are no indications of trauma to Ward’s neck, the lawyer said. (Police have not said whether Ward was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and the Marin County Coroner’s Office is investigating the cause of death.)

“I am extremely disappointed in Sheriff Essick’s reaction to this unfortunate incident. I view his hasty decision as a product of panic, political expediency and hindsight,” Stern said in a statement that called Blount’s actions “entirely reasonable.”

Reached for comment, Izaak Schwaiger, an attorney for Ward’s mother, said, “David was well-loved in his community. When the time for mourning has passed, justice will be done upon those responsible.”

Ward flees multiple times

Early November 27, an off-duty Santa Rosa police officer reported seeing a vehicle, which belonged to Ward and had been reported stolen, in unincorporated Sonoma County, police said. A carjacker had pistol-whipped Ward and stolen the vehicle three days earlier, Essick said.

Ward, a Petaluma resident, was driving the car just before 6 a.m. (9 a.m. ET) when Little gave chase, police said.

With the two Sebastopol officers in their cars behind him, Little attempted to stop Ward between Sebastopol and Bloomfield.

“Deputy Little could not see inside of the vehicle and did not know how many or the identity of the occupants inside,” a police statement said. “The suspect in the initial theft had been in possession of a firearm, and the vehicle was still reported as stolen.”

Ward stopped but then fled, police said, and the pursuit continued. Little tried to perform a special maneuver to stop Ward’s car, but Ward stopped only momentarily, and the chase resumed, according to police.

The body camera video begins before the second stop. In it, Little — using his driver’s door as cover and pointing his gun at Ward’s car — orders Ward to show his hands four times before Ward takes off again.

After a seven-minute chase, the deputy and officers box in Ward on a dead end road in Bloomfield, police said.

Officers say they were bitten

Again, Little uses his car door as cover and aims his weapon at Ward’s car, ordering the driver, “Show me your f***ing hands. Show me your hands. Turn off the f***ing car.”

The body camera’s view is blocked at times, and it’s not possible to see exactly how Ward responds at all times, but on multiple occasions, he lifts his hands in the air and lowers them, leaving them obscured by the car door.

The officers positioned off-camera can also be heard demanding to see Ward’s hands.

Blount arrives and tells Little, “Let me get up there, if you want.”

Little responds, “Wait, wait, wait,” as Blount approaches the car, tells Ward not to move and attempts to open the driver’s door, which appears to be locked. He tells Ward to unlock it. It looks as if Ward moves to unlock the door, but Blount indicates that it remains locked.

“I can’t believe this. I’m the injured party,” Ward says after rolling down his window.

“Don’t move your f***ing hands,” Little tells him.

“Why you f***ing harass me all the time?” Ward asks.

Blount orders Ward to give him his hands and tells his fellow officers, “Get him the f*** out of the car,” as he tries to pull Ward out of the window, but officers are heard saying Ward’s legs are pinned under the steering wheel.

Ward cries in pain, saying, “Hey, hey, hey” and “My legs.” Little tells Blount that Ward is stuck, but the tussle carries on.

As the deputies continue to try to get Ward out of the car, Blount exclaims that Ward bit him. Moments later, Little says Ward bit him, too.

A head slam, Taser and ‘carotid restraint’

Another policeman tells Blount and Little that Ward is stuck, and Blount grabs Ward by his hair in an attempt to pull Ward out of the car through the driver’s window.

Blount pulls Ward’s head away from car before appearing to slam it into the top of the driver’s door, just as Little deploys the Taser. Ward yelps in pain, groans and says something inaudible on the body camera footage.

Blount then placed “one of his arms around the neck of Ward and attempted to administer a carotid restraint,” police said in a statement. A carotid restraint targets the arteries that carry blood to the brain and neck.

“The deputies and officers used personal body weapons and struck Ward several times in an attempt to gain compliance and remove him from his vehicle,” the police statement says.

One of the Sebastopol officers breaks the passenger window with a baton, and Ward is removed from the car, placed on the ground and handcuffed.

After removing the Taser prongs, Little utters an expletive and says, “He broke my skin,” referencing the alleged bite. Later, Blount says, “He didn’t quite break the skin on my arm, but he bit me f***ing hard.”

“You’ve got some blood on your pocket,” another deputy tells Blount.

“That’s his,” Blount says, motioning to Ward.

‘He had no reason to run’

After Deputy Nick Jax tells his colleagues that the man in cuffs “is the owner of this car. That’s David Ward,” Little asks why Ward ran from police.

“I don’t know why he ran,” Jax says. “He had no reason to run, but I was out with him earlier, like two hours ago, at his house. … Obviously, he somehow made contact with the guy (who allegedly stole the car) and got it. But he was here two hours ago, and this is him.”

“Oh well,” Blount says.

“There’s no reason for him to have done this,” Jax says.

A policeman off-camera reports Ward is no longer breathing. Blount tells an officer to start CPR.

An ambulance arrives about 6:20 a.m. and transports Ward to Petaluma Valley Hospital, where he was pronounced dead less than an hour later, police said.

The Santa Rosa Police Department is leading the investigation. The carjacking is the subject of a separate investigation.

“If you watched the body-worn camera video closely, you may be concerned by what you saw. So was I,” Sheriff Essick said in last week’s video statement. “The way Deputy Blount handles the entire situation is extremely troubling. As a result, I’ve served Deputy Blount a notice of termination.”

A notice of termination is the first step in a termination process governed by civil service rules, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Misti Wood told CNN.

Essick did not say whether Little — who has been with the department for 17 years, 12 as a deputy and five as a correctional deputy — or any other officers will face discipline. Blount has been with the sheriff’s office for more than 19 years and previously served less than two years as a Santa Rosa police officer.

“Charlie Blount has served the people of Sonoma County for over 20 years and honorably served in the military for 20 years before that,” his lawyer said. “His actions during this arrest were entirely reasonable under the circumstances known, keeping in mind that videos of uses of force, even when justified, are often upsetting and graphic.”