ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A grand jury declined to issue indictments in the death of a New York City man who stopped breathing while in custody of an upstate police department, state Attorney General Barbara Underwood announced Friday while releasing a report that includes police dashboard video of the man telling officers dozens of times he couldn’t breathe.
A Schenectady County grand jury declined charges in the May 2017 death of Andrew Kearse, 36, of the Bronx, Underwood said. The Democrat’s office conducted a yearlong investigation under a state law that gives the attorney general the authority to act as special prosecutor in cases involving unarmed civilians who die during encounters with police.
The probe found enough evidence to indicate a crime had been committed and warranted a grand jury proceeding, which began last summer. Regardless of the grand jury’s decision, Kearse’s death was “a tragedy that never should have happened,” Underwood said in a statement.
She called on the state Legislature to enact a standard statewide policy that would have police departments require its officers to treat breathing difficulties as medical emergencies.
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“I want to be clear: a complaint about breathing difficulties should not be dismissed because the arrestee is able to talk,” Underwood said.
Kearse was visiting a friend in Schenectady on May 11, 2017, when police pulled him over for a traffic violation. According to the attorney general’s report, he sped away, pulled into his friend’s nearby driveway and fled on foot. After being caught soon after and handcuffed, he was placed in the rear seat of an officer’s car.
Underwood’s report said before and during the drive to the police station, Kearse told officers nearly 50 times that he was having trouble breathing. The patrol car’s rear-facing dashboard video shows Kearse writhing while telling the officer driving the vehicle he couldn’t breathe. The officer kept driving.
Kearse eventually collapsed in the back seat of the patrol car and the officer attempted to resuscitate him on the sidewalk outside the station. An ambulance crew arrived and took Kearse to a hospital, where he was pronounced.
An autopsy determined his death was caused by heart rhythm problems due to an enlarged heart and thickening of the heart’s walls, the state report said.
At the time of Kearse’s death a warrant had been issued for his arrest for violating his parole stemming from a two-year stint in prison for stealing credit cards and electronics from a car. Angelique Negroni-Kearse, Kearse’s widow and mother of four of his children, said her husband was trying to put his life back together, working roofing and other construction jobs.
“I’m very disappointed in the justice system,” Negroni-Kearse said by phone Friday from the Brooklyn office of her attorney, Sanford Rubenstein, who has filed a civil lawsuit against the city of Schenectady on the family’s behalf.
“We look to get justice in the civil case in the wrongful death of Andrew Kearse,” Rubenstein said.
A message left with the Schenectady Police Department wasn’t returned.