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Cop not charged in suspect's death

Cop not charged in suspect's death

Grand jury declines to indict officer
Cop not charged in suspect's death
Andrew Kearse and his wife, Angelique Negroni-Kearse.
Photographer: Provided

SCHENECTADY -- A grand jury has declined to file charges against city police Officer Mark Weekes in connection with a suspect's death of cardiac arrhythmia last year.

The state Attorney General's Office, however, recommended systemic changes in how police departments around the state handle medical emergencies, saying the man's death "never should have happened." 

Andrew Kearse was arrested in May 2017 after police said he tried to flee a traffic stop. On the way to the station and before being taken from the scene, he repeatedly told officers of breathing problems and said he was feeling dizzy, authorities have said.

The grand jury's decision came with a lengthy report released by the Attorney General's Office, which took over the investigation and presented it to the grand jury. The Attorney General's Office also released audio and video recorded from cameras mounted in city police cars and officer microphones.

The report and video, both available at dailygazette.com, set down the timeline: Kearse became unresponsive en route to the station after informing Weekes he couldn't breath and calling out to officers for help 20 times during seven minutes at the scene. 

Weekes then drove Kearse directly to the station, but at a normal rate of speed, the Attorney General's Office said. During the first eight minutes of the drive Kearse called out for help another 29 times, the Attorney General's Office said. 

He collapsed in the back seat and said nothing more for about the final 40 seconds of the drive. He was unresponsive when police arrived at the station, officials said. Officers placed him on the sidewalk at the station, but it took Weekes another six minutes to begin chest compressions. Shortly after starting those, he called for paramedics, the report reads.

Kearse died from cardiac arrhythmia.

Acting Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood on Friday said the grand jury declined to file charges despite her office's efforts.

"After an exhaustive investigation, which we describe in detail in today’s report, we concluded that there was sufficient evidence that a crime had been committed to warrant a presentation to a grand jury," Underwood said in a prepared statement. "The grand jury, however, declined charges; we are prohibited by law from discussing what occurred in the grand jury."

Underwood's statement, however, then turned toward police reform.

The report also states that Kearse's heart issues stemmed from a pre-existing medical condition, that an expert cardiologist concluded his condition deteriorated rapidly, but a window existed -- though limited -- where medical intervention could have saved his life. The expert also noted Kearse's stated symptoms could have pointed to non-life-threatening problems.

"Regardless of the grand jury’s decision, Mr. Kearse’s death was a tragedy that never should have happened, and reforms must be made to prevent similar future tragedies," Underwood said. "To that end, we are urging crucial reforms to how police departments across the state handle medical emergencies."

Underwood's office recommends the state Legislature "immediately act to ensure a uniform statewide policy" for departments in the state requiring breathing difficulties be treated as medical emergencies and that training be conducted to that end.

"I want to be clear: A complaint about breathing difficulties should not be dismissed because the arrestee is able to talk," Underwood's statement reads.

The decision on charges and the recommendation for better medical response had Kearse's widow, Angelique Negroni-Kearse, both disappointed at the decision and hopeful at the recommendation.

"I'm very disappointed in the grand jury, that they didn't indict the officers," Negroni-Kearse said Friday afternoon.

She hopes changes in the law for better medical response will be called "Andrew's Law." She said that means something would come of her husband's death.

"For this tragedy to save other lives, then he didn't die in vain," Negroni-Kearse said.

Underwood also zeroed in on the Schenectady Police Department, saying its policies on medical treatment should be revised in getting suspects under arrest medical services even if their need does not arise from an officer's use of force.

The department also should take steps to become a state-accredited law enforcement agency, Underwood said.

"Mr. Kearse’s death was a terrible tragedy and my heart is with his family," Underwood said. "This should serve as a clarion call for the Legislature and police departments across the state to make systemic reforms to how medical emergencies like this are handled -- so that no other family has to experience what Mr. Kearse’s has gone through.”

The Schenectady Police Department issued a brief statement in response to the report and recommendations, indicating it would need more time to process the lengthy findings.

"The City of Schenectady is appreciative of the assistance provided by the New York State Police, the New York State Attorney General’s Office and the Schenectady County Grand Jury," the department's statement reads. "Any further comment will come at the conclusion of an extensive review of the information and recommendations contained in the Attorney General’s report."

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Weekes went on unpaid leave this past summer after it was announced that the case was being put before the grand jury.

Andrew Safranko, an attorney representing the officers involved, indicated Friday that they are satisfied with the results.

"My general thoughts are obviously that we are very happy with the result of the grand jury. They fully and completely exonerated Officer Weekes of any wrongdoing," Safranko said. "And it supported the complete, thorough and independent investigation performed by the New York State Police, which concurred the same thing: Officer Weekes did not commit any crime."

Safranko also went on to say Weekes was put on unpaid leave at his own request. He said it is a right afforded to him through the police contract with the city.

The incident involving Kearse began the afternoon of May 11, 2017 as city police Sgt. Dean DeMartino tried to stop Kearse for speeding and running a red light. Kearse refused to stop and led DeMartino on a 0.6-mile chase before Kearse pulled into the driveway of a friend's home, according to the detailed account in the report.

DeMartino saw Kearse run around the corner of the house and followed. He caught up with Kearse, but Kearse told him the actual driver had fled, DeMartino told investigators. That portion was missed on the audio, but available video captured images. DeMartino told Kearse to sit by the home's front door while he checked his dashboard camera. Moments later, Kearse ran into the home and out the back. Other officers then gave chase on foot.

One to two minutes later, Officer Brandon Kietlinski found Kearse crouching down near the corner of a nearby house, Kietlinski told investigators. Officers then placed him in handcuffs.

"Mr. Kearse told the officers that he could not walk and needed to catch his breath," the report reads. Officers carried Kearse to Weekes' patrol car, where Kearse began to repeatedly ask for help.

Roughly 16 minutes after Kearse was placed in the car, he slumped over. Then, after nearly seven more minutes went by, paramedics were called, the report reads.

"No call for medical assistance had been made prior to this point," the report reads.

City police officials previously said paramedics were immediately called. 

Negroni-Kearse filed suit against the city over the summer. That case had been on hold while the grand jury investigation continued. The civil case will now go forward, said Sanford Rubenstein, the attorney representing Negroni-Kearse.

"We look forward to deposing the police officers involved," Rubenstein said.

Gazette reporter Andrew Beam contributed to this report.

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