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Foss: Why did man die in police custody?

Foss: Why did man die in police custody?

Kearse's story raises red flags
Foss: Why did man die in police custody?
Susan Perry, girlfriend of Andrew Kearse, speaks to reporters about Kearse's death in police custody May 12, 2017.
Photographer: Steven Cook

Most people survive police custody.

Not Andrew Kearse.

The Schenectady man was arrested after a brief foot chase and put in the back seat of a police car. He told officers that he was dizzy and having trouble breathing; by the time the car arrived at the station, he was unresponsive. Paramedics were called in to provide treatment, and Kearse was eventually taken to Ellis Hospital and pronounced dead.

The details above were provided by police, and they're troubling.

RELATED: State police combing through evidence in Schenectady custody death

They become more troubling when you combine them with comments provided by Kearse's girlfriend, Susan Perry.

According to Perry, police didn't believe Kearse when he said he was having trouble breathing - that they told her he was faking it.

She said the officers "were dragging him out of the car like an animal, and he was lying on the ground motionless. When I called his name multiple times, he didn't respond. He was looking up at the sky, not blinking, motionless."

This is a disturbing anecdote, if true.

It only heightens my curiosity as to what happened to Kearse.

What caused a 36-year-old man to report that he was having trouble breathing, become unresponsive and die?

Was there an underlying health problem?

Did officers use excessive force?

One neighbor told the Gazette he heard someone yelling "you're hurting me, you're hurting me! You broke my leg!"

Was Kearse injured during his encounter with police?

If the answer is yes, we need more information about the nature of his injuries, and whether these injuries contributed to his death.

One of the reasons Kearse's death deserves extra scrutiny is because there have been a number of troubling allegations of excessive force on the part of the Schenectady police.

Earlier this month the Schenectady City Council approved a $75,000 settlement in an excessive force lawsuit stemming from a 2014 incident in which three people claimed police officers punched, kicked and used a police dog on them without justification.

In March, a woman filed a notice of claim accusing two city police officers of pushing her and causing a severe head injury while she was under arrest.

In 2015, city resident Vebra Moore was knocked unconscious in a holding cell by two Schenectady police officers, according to a recent Albany Times Union article. Both officers were determined to have behaved appropriately.

Yes, there are times when police officers are justified in using force.

But Kearse's story raises red flags.

Some will criticize Kearse for running away when officers attempted to stop him for a traffic violation.

My personal feeling is that I'd rather see people get away with the occasional traffic violation than end up dead in police custody. But even if you think Kearse's decision was ill-advised, it doesn't necessarily follow that his death was necessary, inevitable or justified.
Schenectady police have asked the New York State Police to look into Kearse's death, and I'm glad they did.

We need to know how and why Andrew Kearse died, and an outside investigation will answer these questions.

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's. Her blog can be found here.

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