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San Diego County Sheriff’s Department will change training after $12M payout over in-custody death

The updated training emphasizes the role of a safety officer, who is supposed to monitor breathing and other vital signs of the person under restraint


Lucky Phounsy pictured in this undated photo.

Photo/United States District Court

By Greg Moran
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department won’t be banning the use of maximum restraints, sometimes known as hogtying, though it has altered its training on how to use them.

The decision comes in the wake of a $12 million payout the county agreed to make to settle a civil rights lawsuit from the family of Lucky Phounsy, who died in 2015 after a violent struggle with nearly a dozen deputies.

Phounsy had been put into the restraints — he was handcuffed and his ankles were wrapped with a strap or cord, which then connected to the cuffs while he lay face-down with his knees bent. He stopped breathing and later died.

A San Diego federal court jury initially awarded the family $85 million following a trial in March, where the department’s training and use of the technique was a key element in the case. That award was later thrown out by a judge, and both sides settled the case for $12 million before another trial could be held.

Lawyers for the Phounsy family not only faulted the department’s training video explaining how to apply the restraints, but also said that the county was far behind other departments nationally. About 30 law enforcement agencies across the country, including police departments in Los Angeles and New York City, have dropped the technique of binding hands and feet together because it can be too dangerous.

However, the county has declined to follow suit, citing both a revised training process and a decrease in use of the restraints in favor of a newer device that is supposed to be a safer way of restraining someone.

Sheriff’s Lt. Amber Baggs wrote in an email response to questions from the Union-Tribune that the Phounsy case showed the department that the training video must be updated.

“We recognized our training was not clear enough in order to ensure that some important tactics were implemented and additional safety initiatives were properly demonstrated to our deputies,” she wrote.

She said the revised video has a “slower and detailed demonstration” on using the restraints, and emphasizes the role of a safety officer, who is supposed to monitor breathing and other vital signs of the person under restraint. And it includes new instructions on where the cord should placed, emphasizing it should attach at the waist, and not at the handcuffs.

Deputies are also told not to leave the person face down, on their belly. That is how Phounsy was left for nearly 30 minutes, according to the lawsuit.

But the training revisions did not impress Mark Fleming, one of the Phounsy family lawyers. He said the changes outlined by Baggs — the new video is not yet publicly available — appear to repeat what was in the initial video, which was made in 2007. “This enhanced training or whatever it is is not going to make a bit of difference,” he said.

He said that the department ought to ban the use of restraints outright, or it will likely face more lawsuits. “As long as they continue the practice of hogtying, as long as it is an option for them, it’s just a matter of time before someone dies as a result,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

Phounsy was one of at least eight people in county custody who had died while in maximum restraints since 2002, according to a review of lawsuits by the Union-Tribune last year. The county has paid out $13.4 million in settlements in those deaths, including the Phounsy case.

Baggs also noted that the use of maximum restraints by deputies has been on the decline in recent years. Deputies are now more frequently using The WRAP, a device which wraps the person’s legs in a type of blanket, immobilizing the lower half of the body. A strap connects to a chest harness which holds handcuffed hands in place and keeps the person sitting upright to make breathing easier.

Statistics from the department show that in 2017 restraints were used 130 times. Then in 2018, when The WRAP was introduced, that number fell to 75, with the new technique being deployed 129 times. By 2021, restraints were used 33 times, and The WRAP 221 times.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

©2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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