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Dead Heat 

Despite the deaths of Aaron Williams and Mark Garcia, the SFPD continues to use pepper spray on suspects who stand a good chance of dying in custody.

Wednesday, May 15 1996
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Mark Garcia's well-being centered on one thing -- staying off crack cocaine. He kept the small Millbrae apartment he shared with his former wife and two daughters obsessively clean as he struggled to maintain control over a life that had very recently lacked any semblance of order. Garcia proudly displayed what looked like poker chips, which he had earned from Narcotics Anonymous (NA), in a neat pattern on top of a stereo speaker in his cramped living room. The markers were milestones of time spent clean and sober -- one day, six months, one year -- and much more valuable than gambling winnings. When Garcia earned a chip commemorating his second year off drugs, he wore it around his neck on a gold chain.

Garcia inaugurated every morning with a cigarette, a cup of coffee, and a reading from a book of daily affirmations while a Kenny G or Sade CD played in the background. It may sound like a skit from Saturday Night Live, but the ritual worked for the 41-year-old. He was so opposed to -- and fearful of -- drugs that he wouldn't even touch a mild prescription painkiller for a recent toothache. Garcia dutifully attended NA meetings five days a week, sponsored a handful of other people in recovery, and regularly spoke at drug rehabilitation centers.

The routine helped turn Garcia's life around. He salvaged a troubled relationship with his former wife, graduated from trucking school, and started working again. But as with many addicts, the craving for crack never disappeared completely, no matter how many chips and uplifting affirmations he racked up in his recovery bank account.

On Thursday, April 4, of this year, Garcia left his apartment and headed for the Teamsters Hall in San Francisco to apply for a permanent trucking job. When he didn't return home that evening, or the next day, or the next, Garcia's former wife, Debbie, figured he'd taken a spur-of-the-moment trip to Reno.

Garcia came to the attention of the SFPD on Saturday morning, at about 11:30 a.m., when they responded to reports that a distressed, incoherent man was wandering in the middle of Cesar Chavez Street between Folsom and Shotwell streets wearing only a T-shirt. Witnesses reported that Garcia had stumbled out of the nearby projects, begging for assistance, at one point dropping to his knees and crying, "Help me. Help me."

Garcia ran away from police when they first approached him, and they pursued him to the Olympic gas station at the corner of Cesar Chavez and South Van Ness. There the officers repeatedly pepper sprayed Garcia after he allegedly slashed one officer's scalp with a crack pipe. He was eventually subdued by as many as four officers. His hands and feet were cuffed together. After a police dispatcher diverted an ambulance intended for Garcia to a nearby traffic accident, witnesses say he was placed on his stomach in a paddy wagon for transport to police lockdown at San Francisco General Hospital.

The 331-pound Garcia suffered a massive heart attack en route to the hospital. He was resuscitated but died after having another heart attack the next day.

"Mark wasn't a monster," says Debbie Garcia. "He was a recovering addict who slipped up and was looking for help."

Ron Garcia, Mark's younger brother, adds: "I can understand a cop being afraid of Mark; he was a big guy with 26-inch arms. But he didn't deserve to get treated like that."

Garcia's relapse isn't news, but the way in which he died has worked its way to Page 1. According to police statistics, in-custody deaths following the administration of pepper spray have become distressingly familiar in San Francisco, the state of California, and the rest of the country.

Garcia was a perfect candidate for what has come to be known as "in-custody death syndrome," a phenomenon that tends to strike individuals after a prolonged struggle with police. The deaths are blamed on a variety of factors -- most often cardiac arrest -- but no one knows for sure what brings on the fatal heart attack. The victims are usually obese, middle-aged, under the influence of cocaine or methamphetamine, and engaged in frenzied, often bizarre, behavior. A few are in the midst of a psychotic episode that has nothing to do with drug use. And in almost every case, the victims are pepper sprayed by police before being hogtied. Just when the police believe they have the situation under control, the suspect abruptly stops breathing.

Pepper spray is now in the hands of thousands of police officers across the land. And according to one estimate, 6.5 million civilians also use the weapon with little or no training and scant knowledge of its potential health effects. Nearly all of California's law enforcement agencies arm themselves with pepper spray and have used it more than 23,000 times since 1993, according to the California Department of Justice (DOJ). In that time, 32 suspects in California have died in custody after being pepper sprayed, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Nationwide, the death toll tops 60.

Like the high-profile case of Aaron Williams, who died after being pepper sprayed during a struggle with a dozen SFPD officers last June, Garcia's demise calls into question the use of pepper spray by the San Francisco Police Department on individuals who are likely candidates for in-custody death syndrome.

"Mark was sprayed four times instead of the one time stipulated by both Police Department guidelines and the specifications of the pepper spray manufacturers," Ron Garcia said during an April 26 press conference, in which he demanded that the officers who arrested Mark be put on administrative leave pending a full investigation. "We're also calling for the banning of pepper spray in San Francisco until a health and safety study is conducted, and we want to see Police Academy training scenarios implemented that deal with these kinds of situations so officers know [how] to properly handle themselves."

About The Author

Gordon Young

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