Police release dash cam footage after public interest, but questions linger

In March 2018, the City of Culver City and several of its sworn police officers were served an excessive force lawsuit packed with serious allegations. The suit, which centers around a Feb 4 2017 traffic stop and arrest, contends that the Culver City Police Department (CCPD) violated the civil rights of a Los Angeles resident – Terry Walton – after pulling him over for driving with dealer plates.

The public now has two accounts of events: one version alleged in the lawsuit and one disseminated by the Culver City government when it issued an April 19 press release to the public. Sent to the City’s email listserv and published on Twitter, the release included a link to dashcam footage of the incident.

That footage largely, but not entirely, corroborated the lawsuit’s description of the incident. Yet the event itself makes up only a portion of the larger complaint, which seeks to indict the entire Culver City police system, and indirectly the City of Culver City, for a pattern of illegal and negligent procedures.

It’s worth reviewing what’s known about the case and what to expect going forward. Let’s start with the Feb 4 arrest.

There is no question that CCPD officer James Gladden subjected Mr. Walton to a technique called “carotid control,” in which Mr. Gladden cut off blood flow to Mr. Walton’s brain by compressing the large arteries running through his neck.

By the CCPD’s account, Mr. Gladden also utilized “pain compliance,” which may refer to a line in the lawsuit alleging a second arresting officer, Michael Kutylo, leveraged Mr. Walton’s arm in a “chicken wing position” beyond “normal range of motion.” Both techniques are permitted per the CCPD’s Policy Manual.

The first view of Mr. Walton's car in the dash cam footage released by Culver City. His vehicle, the white Chrysler minivan, is seen at a full stop as the police vehicle approaches.
The first view of Mr. Walton’s car in the dash cam footage released by Culver City. His vehicle, the white minivan, is seen at a full stop as the police vehicle approaches.

The events leading up to these maneuvers are in dispute, however. The lawsuit alleges Mr. Walton was unreasonably detained and falsely arrested – that there was no good rationale for ordering him to exit his vehicle or putting handcuffs on him, since he was stopped for mere “vehicle code violations.” There’s no sign of impaired driving in the dash video, as he was idle at a traffic light in the moments before being pulled over.

According to the city, one of the officers came to suspect Mr. Walton “was under the influence of narcotics at the time of the encounter” after Mr. Walton admitted he was on probation for previous substance charges. The City’s press release goes on to say: “since he had not been searched for weapons, the officers became suspicious of his [refusal to exit the vehicle] and concerned for their safety.”

Knowing more about the verbal exchange between Mr. Walton, Mr. Gladden, and Mr. Kutylo would help in evaluating the soundness of their suspicion, but as far as the public is aware, no transcript or recording of this conversation exists.

Mr. Walton’s full medical report, obtained from the criminal resisting arrest case against him, includes a urine test positive for amphetamine and marijuana but no other substances. It’s difficult to put much weight in this report, however. Urinalysis, even according to the medical report itself, is a screening tool that needs to be followed up with more careful laboratory testing.

Even the follow-up isn’t perfect, particularly for amphetamines. Because so many over-the-counter drugs can react like amphetamine, The Food and Drug Administration notes “a result showing the presence of amphetamine should be considered carefully, even when … confirmed in the laboratory.”

Whether the officers had good reason to suspect Mr. Walton was intoxicated, police have more leeway in what they can do once they know someone is on probation. As part of a probation agreement, individuals sometimes waive their fourth amendment right to be free from warrantless searches – it depends entirely on the terms agreed to at sentencing. If Mr. Walton’s probation permitted warrantless searches, the plaintiff may have difficulty proving the CCPD officers violated his protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

At a larger level, the suit raises questions about the CCPD’s general training and discipline procedures and the involved officers’ work histories. These may be the most salient to determining who, if anyone, will be held accountable at the case’s endpoint.

Mr. Walton’s lawsuit alleges Culver City police chief Scott Bixby made a practice of “permitting, encouraging and ratifying the use of unnecessary force, false arrest and acting with reckless indifference to the constitutional rights of the public.” It further charges that Mr. Bixby and the City knew the defendants “had propensities for violence, dishonesty, and for abusing their authority but failed to [enact] discipline.”

Nothing made public so far can substantiate these claims.

The lawyer representing Mr. Walton, Cameron Sehat of the Sehat Law Firm, has said that parts of the criminal trial against Mr. Walton give inclinations as to these illegal practices. Based on the exhibits presented in that trial, which don’t include a police report or any internal CCPD documents, it seems Mr. Sehat will count on civil discovery to make good on those inclinations.

Considering the extended carotid hold paired with Mr. Walton’s hard, uncontrolled faint – exacerbated by the weight of Mr. Gladden on his back – the potential for brain trauma seems high.

Lastly, there is more to be known about the citizen at the center of this Culver City controversy – Terry Walton. The lawsuit claims the officers’ use of force was so severe that Mr. Walton now experiences a range of impairments including deteriorating eyesight, memory loss, chronic headaches, and difficulty speaking. Presumably he will present further testimony as to these claims – and perhaps already has in his criminal trial.

What’s currently available makes clear the altercation was traumatic, maybe enough to cause long-lasting damage.

From what can be gleaned in the dash footage, Mr. Gladden’s hold goes on for at least two minutes. That’s an extremely dangerous length of time to restrict oxygen flow to the brain – and it’s a low-end estimate of how long Mr. Gladden leveraged his body weight on Mr. Walton’s neck. The pair are eventually obscured by a squad of descending CCPD officers.

Muscle spasms in Mr. Walton’s legs, known as myoclonus, begin triggering sporadically about 25 seconds into the hold as the officers turn him into his chest. Interspersed with random punches from Mr. Kutylo, the spasms go on for about a minute before Mr. Walton is still, possibly unconscious. Myoclonus is a known effect of extended loss of blood flow to the brain, as are some of the secondary side effects reported in the lawsuit, like memory loss.

Culver City police officers induce muscle spasms in Mr. Walton, which can be caused by lack of blood flow to the brain.
Culver City police officers induce muscle spasms in Mr. Walton, which can be caused by lack of blood flow to the brain.

Considering the extended carotid hold paired with Mr. Walton’s hard, uncontrolled faint – exacerbated by the weight of Mr. Gladden on his back – the potential for brain trauma seems high.

Furthermore, Mr. Walton may have experienced significant cardiac stress. He showed elevated levels of certain heart-related proteins that act as a clinical proxy for stress on the heart.

According to one medical professional I spoke to, the increased levels of these proteins could suggest a type of heart attack caused by lack of oxygen supply to the heart muscle, known as “type 2 myocardial infarction.” She noted those elevated levels could also be explained by amphetamines in Mr. Walton’s system, however. Without a more thorough toxicology report, it’s impossible to tell.

Culver City’s press release claimed the dashcam footage “presents an opportunity for community conversation on use of force.”

No plan, setting, or date for this conversation has been put forth, but Mr. Walton’s case demonstrates it’s clearly one worth having. Carotid holds can be deadly – and have been in other cities like Los Angeles, where they are now banned.

The San Diego Police Department restricted its use of carotid holds in 1992 after killing several people in custody over just a couple years. One man, clad only in his underwear, died after a nearly five-minute carotid hold employed by San Diego PD officers.

Residents of Culver City – and the incoming City Council, which oversees the CCPD – now have the opportunity examine whether they, as a community, are comfortable with the routine use of this type of force and whether they believe their police are equipped to be performing such dangerous maneuvers.

As for Mr. Walton, he was set to hear back from the City and other defendants in court on April 30. An attorney representing the City, Jill Williams of Carpenter, Rothans, and Dumont, filed for more time to respond to Mr. Walton’s complaint. Ms. Williams, who unsuccessfully defended the Culver City Police Department in the 2010 murder of an unarmed black man, was granted the extension, and the City is now due back in court on May 14.