‘I can’t breathe’: Patient dies after 5 Calif. FF-medics violate policy
A 2021 disciplinary letter to Capt. Jeffrey Scott Klein states that the patient, who needed a glucose shot, was handcuffed and put in a prone position
By Theresa Clift
The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Five Sacramento firefighters violated city protocols and training when they stood by as police officers held a Black man face down in a dangerous position that led to his death, according to new city documents.
The city in June fired a Capt. Jeffrey Scott Klein, who was in charge of responding to the medical call, according to a March 2021 disciplinary letter former Deputy Fire Chief Niko King sent Klein. The Sacramento Bee obtained the letter through a California Public Records Act request.
But before Klein was fired, during the investigation, he received over $138,849 while on paid leave. Depending on the outcome of arbitration next month, Klein may get his job back.
The remaining four other firefighters and three police officers kept their jobs.
Firefighters responded to the February 2020 call when Reginald “Reggie” Payne’s mother requested a glucose shot for her son, who was suffering a diabetic emergency.
When the firefighters arrived they reported that Payne was flailing, acting irrationally and exposed himself to them. They called police to restrain him so they could administer the shot.
The three officers arrived and handcuffed him with his hands behind his back so he was laying face down in the dangerous so-called prone position. The position is against paramedic training, but the firefighters did not intervene — even after Payne screamed he couldn’t breathe and became unresponsive, the letter states.
The firefighters violated department policies and training, in addition to Sacramento County Emergency Medical Services Agency protocols, the letter states.
“Your medical training and protocols dictate that the patient shall be placed in a sitting, supine or lateral recumbent position and avoid prone positioning,” the letter to Klein states. “As a paramedic and as the supervisor on scene, you made no effort to ensure the repositioning of (Payne). After (Payne) stopped struggling and became unresponsive, more than two minutes passed before you and the other paramedics changed his position from prone to lifting him on the gurney. (Payne) remained unresponsive for five minutes until he was brought into the ambulance before it was noticed by you that he was not breathing.”
‘I can’t breathe’
The letter also confirms a new detail about that day, which Sacramento’s Black leaders say shows the firefighters and police officers acted with racism.
“Approximately fifty-five seconds after being handcuffed (Payne) shouted, ‘I can’t breathe, ... Momma ... Daddy!’” the June disciplinary letter from then-Deputy Fire Chief Niko King to Klein states. “Approximately a minute and a half later (he) said, “Oh my god ... I can’t (inaudible),’ as he struggled to breathe.”
The exclamation is indiscernible in the video footage police released in April 2020, but the letter shows that Payne’s last words echoed those of Eric Garner who said “I can’t breathe” 11 times before he died in 2014 after a New York City police officer put him in a chokehold while arresting him. Garner’s words became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Tanya Faison, founder of Black Lives Matter Sacramento, said the city should fire the other seven police officers and firefighters who responded.
“Everybody involved should be fired,” Faison said. “The fire department employees and SacPD employees are public servants and they did not serve the public in this man’s situation. He was having a physical health crisis.”
Faison said the city should also change policies to ensure that when firefighters need to call for backup on a medical call, they are not calling police. Payne did not have a weapon and was not accused of a crime, she pointed out.
“They shouldn’t have called police to constrain him, and when police got there they shouldn’t have treated him as a criminal,” Faison said. “The police shouldn’t be called when it’s a mental health situation or a medical situation.”
Payne’s mother reported that her son had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, according to the disciplinary letter.
“There needs to be policies put in place that handle this type of situation and that also include repercussions when these things happen so there’s a standard that’s kept,” Faison said. “Those firefighters and officers should not be working with Black community members right now.”
After the city fired Klein, he appealed the discipline, city spokesman Tim Swanson said. It’s scheduled for arbitration in mid-May, which could lead to his rehiring. For the four other firefighters, the city issued unpaid 10-shift suspensions. For three of the four, the city also temporarily docked pay for two years, the letters state.
But prior to the June disciplinary letters, while the investigation was ongoing, the city put the five employees on paid leave. During the 13 months after the death, they earned between $112,000 to $138,849 each. Four are now back to work — Sean Holleman; Clinton Simons; Scott Caravalho; and Eric Munson. In their most recent annual salaries, they earned comprehensive annual salaries between $105,865 and $136,709. Their base salaries are now higher than they were before Payne’s death.
The city declined to answer whether any of the three police officers involved were disciplined, but confirmed they are all still police officers on active duty. Officers John Helmich, David Mower, and Kevin Moorman currently earn comprehensive annual salaries between $108,000 and $119,000. Their base salaries are higher than when Payne’s death occurred.
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‘An inexcusable neglect of duty’
The call came in on Feb. 25, 2020, from South Sacramento. Payne’s mother told the dispatcher she suspected her son was suffering from low blood sugar. When the firefighters arrived, Payne was “acting irrationally without control over his arms, legs or cognitive speech,” the letter states.
Fire Capt. Klein decided to remove the firefighters from the house and wait for police to come restrain him before treating him, the letter states. After the first officer arrived, he can be heard on video saying he had never done this before, and that Payne was “a big boy.”
Two other officers arrived 12 minutes later. They entered the home, grabbed his arms and legs and handcuffed him behind his back, his face down on the floor in the prone position.
“Who’s the rodeo star?” one firefighter jokes to the officers, according to the video.
As police hold him down, Payne continues to make unintelligible noises, crying out for his parents and saying he could not breathe. After about four minutes in the position and a paramedic injecting him with glucose, Paynestops moving and speaking.
One firefighter made a joke to an officer saying, “What did you do?”
“There were no checks made of his airway or breathing, beyond the minimum quick carotid pulse check you performed,” the newly released disciplinary letter to Caravalho, who was one of the responding firefighters, stated. “No further checks of airway breathing or circulation occurred after he was placed on gurney ... His mother, watching her son with concern ... entered to look closer at her son and asked ‘you guys sedate him or something?’”
The paramedics kept Payne in the prone position for two minutes after he stopped responding, before placing him on to the gurney, the letter states.. When the paramedics rolled Payne out the front door, the video footage stops. because the police had left. Firefighters do not have body cameras.
While in the ambulance, paramedics realized he wasn’t breathing and started CPR, the letter states. Payne was taken to the hospital but never regained consciousness. He died March 3. The coroner report lists the cause as “sudden cardiac arrest while being restrained in the prone position.”
The paramedics should have moved Payne out of the prone position immediately after police placed him in it, the letter states. The firefighters are trained to only restrain people sitting up, not laying down.
“You failed to protect (Payne) from being in a dangerous physical position while being restrained,” the letter to Klein states. “You recklessly misjudged the seriousness of (Payne’s) condition. Your failure to exercise appropriate assessment and necessary care is a departure from professional standards of care expected by city’s paramedics that could have saved (Payne’s) life ... Your actions and failure to monitor the medical condition on scene constitutes an inexcusable neglect of duty.”
The family in 2020 filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the city. It’s still active.
Payne’s parents no longer live in the south Sacramento home, said Rebecca Williams, a former neighbor. Williams remembers Payne as a quiet polite man, she said.
“He stayed in the house mostly. He came out to take a walk, and would always wave and say hi. When I heard about it I was shocked,” Williams said earlier this month.
After the death, Payne’s mother was distraught, she said.
“She came over and asked me if I had seen anything,” Williams said. “She said she felt they had messed up.”