An African-American man with schizophrenia was almost burnt to death after police officers attempted to arrest him.
James Bradford Nelson III from Sacramento, California, was visiting his cousins on June 23 when he got into a minor car accident. He used a borrowed phone to tell his parents his car was disabled and he was waiting for the police to arrive. He also told them he would ask his cousin to pick him up.
“That’s when everything goes black,” said his stepfather, Barry Benigno, who is a substitute teacher in Stockton.
The couple lost contact with their son after that first phone call. Then three days later, a Stockton police officer showed up at the couple’s house. It turns out, Nelson was at the UC Davis hospital’s burn unit and was fighting for his life. The 28-year-old man remained unconscious for three days and when he woke up he remembered nothing about the incident that put him in the hospital.
However, video and call records show the entire incident. Apparently, police officers received calls that a person was acting erratically at a KFC restaurant. CCTV footage shows a shirtless Nelson, who appeared agitated, jumping the counter and flailing his hands at the restaurant manager, Anthony Easter. The man also took a swing at Easter and then tried to snatch at Easter’s rear pocket.
The manager later reported to the police that Nelson was “pointing his finger and pretending to shoot” the customers and the staff, according to a statement filed in the Sacramento Superior Court.
The police said Nelson was later seen talking to himself in the parking lot and trying to open the doors of the vehicles there. They also found a methamphetamine pipe in the lot but were unable to prove if it was connected to Nelson.
Eight officers arrived at the scene. Police Chief Ron Lawrence said his men were trained in defusing volatile situation, particularly those involving mentally unstable people. The officers were able to throw Nelson to the ground and held him down with a restraint blanket.
At that time, it was 100 degree outside in Sacramento and the asphalt was closer to 170 degrees. To put things into perspective, eggs begin frying at 144 degrees while the human skin instantly destroys at 162 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
The officers reportedly held down Nelson for five minutes. Officer Jordan Rinek, who was the first to arrive on the scene, said he “didn’t hear any screaming” although another officer said Nelson was “yelling” and thrashing about.
Once officers realized Nelson’s skin was burning, they poured water over him but it was too late by then. They then called paramedics who transferred the man to the burn intensive care unit.
Now, Nelson’s parents want to know why officers held Nelson to the blistering ground rather than moving him to a shady spot or Tasering him before transporting him to psychiatric care.
Nelson suffered second-degree burns that cause redness and blisters along with third-degree burns, which affect deeper tissues including muscles. Most of his tattooed chest resembled “raw meat,” as did the right side of his face, said the Beningos. He also had a tube down his throat to help him breathe and suffered from kidney failure, probably from shock.
“He looked like someone had thrown acid on him,” said his stepfather.
Nelson, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was a teenager, has had three skin grafts operations and will need further surgery.
Upon release, he faces attempted robbery charges, being under the influence of drugs and resisting a police officer.
“Using force to make an arrest or overcome resistance is something police officers try and avoid,” said Police Chief Lawrence, “but it is necessary at times, particularly when suspects are violent or resist a lawful arrest. In this circumstance, I am glad James Nelson was taken into custody without anyone being injured as a result of his violent and erratic behavior.”
Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County sheriff’s deputy and attorney, said it is rare for suspects to sustain life-threatening injuries while being taken into custody.
“They’re dealing with a potentially violent individual,” Obayashi said. “He’s probably sweaty, squirming, struggling, and they’re trying to control him. They don’t want to shoot the guy. They used sheer body weight to subdue him, and it happened to be a very hot day.”
“No use-of-force incident is pretty,” he added. “But there is no policy that I am aware of that says officers cannot or should not execute take-down on hot pavement.”
Black Lives Matter Sacramento took up Nelson’s cause and protested at the Citrus Heights Police Department during the weekend.
Banner/Thumbnail: Reuters, Lucy Nicholson