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Reports: Officers ignored man's breathing problems

Reports: Officers ignored man's breathing problems
Attendees quietly listen to a speech during a rally for Eric Garner, Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014, in the Staten Island borough of New York. The city medical examiner ruled that Eric Garner, 43, died as a result of a police chokehold during an attempted arrest. The march was led by the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
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LOS ANGELES (AP) - Police officers in Los Angeles ignored pleas for help and complaints by a man who said he couldn't breathe and later died in custody, reports show.

Two reports released in the past week indicate that officers didn't take Jorge Azucena seriously and one sergeant told him: "You can talk, so you can breathe," the Los Angeles Times reported Friday.

"There should not be any question that when somebody in custody is heard to say 'I cannot breathe,' the officers should promptly call for an ambulance," said Robert Saltzman, a member of the civilian Police Commission that oversees the LAPD.

One report was issued by the commission's inspector general - who conducted an independent investigation - and the other was submitted to the commission by Police Chief Charlie Beck.

Beck declined to comment through a spokesman, the Times said.

Authorities say Azucena, 26, was arrested last September after he ran a red light and was briefly chased by officers.

After he was handcuffed, Azucena told officers he couldn't breathe and had asthma.

Azucena had to be held up to take him to a patrol car, and one officer recalled he appeared to be wobbly, according to the inspector general's report.

At one point, he began yelling to onlookers: "'Help me, help me, help me. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. Help me, please,'" the report stated.

Azucena collapsed to his knees while trying to get out of the patrol car after being taken to a South Los Angeles police station for booking.

One officer told him that he needed to "act like a man and walk," according to the inspector general's report.

Officers hauled him inside, with his feet dragging, and laid him on the floor outside the office of a sergeant who was acting as station supervisor. Azucena was again recorded as saying he couldn't breathe, according to the reports.

He finally was left face-down on the floor of a holding cell, where he was later discovered not breathing. Nearly 40 minutes after he was taken into custody, paramedics arrived and tried to revive him. He was taken to a hospital and resuscitation efforts continued for several hours before he was declared dead.

Blood tests revealed that Azucena had methamphetamine in his system, but the Los Angeles County coroner's report concluded that he probably died from an asthma attack. The death was classified as an accident.

Eleven officers and sergeants remain under internal investigation in the case. Another sergeant recently retired.

The district attorney's office also is reviewing the matter to determine whether any criminal wrongdoing occurred.

It is troubling that so many officers ignored Azucena's complaints and indicates a need to better train officers, Police Commission President Steve Soboroff said.

"I don't think this points to a culture of officers who don't care about people," Soboroff said. "But it's important that we make sure officers know they can follow their own moral compass and can feel comfortable speaking up in any situation if they have questions about what is going on."
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