Sheriff among those to participate

Mauricio Julian Cuellar Jr., Alice Echo-News Journal

Four members of the Jim Wells County Sheriff's Department participated last week in a workshop for Identification, Prevention, Management and Investigation of Sudden and In-Custody Deaths conducted by the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Deaths.

The eight-hour course was held at the South Padre Island Police Department Training Center.

Participating members of the instructor course from the department included Sheriff Oscar Lopez, Maj. Richard Miller, Capt. Louie Valadez and Sgt. Jose "Gino" Martinez.

The course covered several types of in-custody deaths, including suicide and those that are spontaneous. It dealt with a new cause of death now recognized by the medical community called "excited delirium."

"Often times, the reason they happen is because of some form of drug use, or other activities or health concerns they've had in the past," Valadez said. "They become aggressive while being placed into custody, and for whatever reason they struggle and end up dying. There are reasons behind it, in their previous history of drug use or medical problems, and not necessarily because of any action by the officer.

"They all compound together in that instant, and you have a sudden death."

The World Health Organization defines sudden death as cardio-respiratory collapse occurring within 24 hours of the symptoms.

Sudden in-custody death, as explained by the course, is any unintentional death that occurs while the subject is in police custody. It usually takes place after the subject has displayed bizarre or violent behavior and has been restrained.

The death appears similar to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

"This has been going on for some time, and of course now they are offering courses to give officers ideas on what to look for when they arrive on scene," Valadez said. "If a person is acting erratic at a scene, running around naked and sweating profusely, if they act as if they are in another state of mind, but not necessarily participating in a criminal act, they have become more of a medical risk.

"Now that we've been trained and see that, we still need to take steps to restrain him, to ensure his safety and our own, but we also need to have someone on standby, like EMS, because this person may be displaying some symptoms of excited delirium."

Although there is a lot of discussion now on the uses of tasers in police work, Valadez said there has been no documented connection between the use of tasers and the occurrence of sudden death.

The course also covered the issue of jail suicide, such as reasoning behind why someone would consider suicide, depression, religious suicides and monitoring people and looking for cues in cases of suicide prevention.

"That's why we ask these sorts of questions in the beginning, as someone is being booked into the jail, we ask them about suicide, if they have thoughts about suicide, or if they are under medication, or other illnesses, because we are actively looking for those cues," Valadez said. "Our policy is to notify MHMR, and have an evaluation done. It seemed like a very short-time period, but it was a very in-depth, it was a very good course overall."

Pharr Police Department, South Padre Island Police Department, Port Isabel Police Department and JWC participated in the course.

The department hopes to host a similar class later this year at the Sheriff's Department Training Center, to share this information with other agencies in Jim Wells County and the surrounding area.

"Information and laws are changing all the time, and as a department we're always working to stay ahead of those changes, with courses and training like this," Lopez said.