Police Won’t Face Charges for In-Custody Deaths

Will San Francisco officers ever be held accountable?

In District Attorney George Gascón’s Wednesday decision to not file charges for two separate in-custody deaths, an enduring question resurfaces: in what case is he willing to hold police accountable?

On a day when the city — and local press — was preoccupied by the swearing in of its new mayor, the District Attorney’s office announced it would not file charges for two deaths that happened in police custody. Both Carlos Margo and Darnell Benson suffered a lack of oxygen to the brain in deaths both ruled accidental.

Police detained Margo in March 2017 after reports of erratic behavior at a Market Street restaurant, where he smashed a jug of water to the ground and use a glass shard to stab himself. After he resisted arrest and was administered with a sedative, officers removed the shackles and handcuffs but couldn’t find a pulse.

Margo was on life support for 13 days before his death, which the Medical Examiner’s office ruled an accident. A lack of oxygen cause brain damage, which was caused by “methamphetamine toxicity while under law enforcement restraint,” the autopsy determined.

While being processed for trespassing in April 2015, Benson expressed suicidal thoughts and first responders tried to transport him to psychiatric care. He resisted in the form of flailing, spitting and attempting to bite a deputy and was injected with a sedative.

Benson’s heart eventually stopped and doctors determined that he had cardiac arrest and lack of oxygen to the brain. After three days of life support, he was declared dead.

The Medical Examiner’s office declared Benson’s death to be an accident. Acute methamphetamine and cocaine intoxication, and not the officer’s use of force, led to complications that caused the death, the autopsy ruled.

It’s easy to see “accident” and switch focus to wrongdoings that involve intention. But actions, or lack of action, contribute to accidents that policies and procedures can prevent.

These in-custody deaths ultimately lay in the shadow of high-profile fatal shootings like Luis Góngora Pat and Mario Woods, who were killed in 2016 and 2015, respectively. In May, Gascón said he wouldn’t file charges against officers involved in those shooting and cast blame on the laws for not considering police shootings a crime.

“I’m extremely, extremely disturbed by the state of the law today, and yet I’m duty-bound to adhere to the rules of the law,” Gascón said. “In this country, we do not bring charges against people who do not break the law.”

This tells us that it’s unlikely Gascón will ever press charges against officers, even if he publicly supports and has acted on police reform. But as he continues to announce decisions like Wednesday’s, the harder it becomes for Gascón to distance himself from the issue — complexities be damned. 

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