The family of a man who stopped breathing in police custody and later died is considering filing a civil lawsuit against the Cedar Rapids Police Department.
Paul R. Saldivar, 33, died May 17, one week after he lost consciousness in the back of a patrol car. Medical examiners ruled his death accidental, with intoxication a contributing factor. Following a seven-month investigation, Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden announced Wednesday that the officers involved did not use excessive force while arresting Saldivar, and he said no criminal charges would be filed.
Saldivar’s sister, Paulette Gandara, told The Gazette she and her siblings will discuss whether to file a wrongful death lawsuit. She said the explanation given by authorities about how her brother died “doesn’t add up.”
“The moment the police department takes a person into custody, it is their responsibility to make sure that person arrives safely, no matter what they’ve done,” Gandara said Thursday.
Saldivar was arrested for public intoxication and an outstanding traffic-related warrant after an officer made a business check at Hazzard County Saloon, 315 Second Ave. SE, at around 11:10 p.m. on May 10. Police said Saldivar ran from the first officer he encountered and then resisted the officers’ attempts to sit him in the squad car.
Police reported that Saldivar would not pull his feet into the squad car and refused to sit upright. An officer pulled Saldivar laterally across the back seat so that the rear doors could be closed. According to the final investigative report, Saldivar was lying on his right side when the police car left for the Linn County Jail, and was not buckled in.
As Officer Shannon Aguero drove to the jail, Saldivar was thrashing around, kicking at one door while hitting his head against the armrest of the other door, according to police. Saldivar became quiet as Aguero was pulling up to the jail.
Officials said the jail’s sally port was occupied when Aguero arrived, leading to a delay of about five minutes. Aguero tried to communicate with Saldivar while waiting for the sally port door to open, but Saldivar did not respond.
Once inside the sally port, deputies found Saldivar unresponsive in the back seat, lying on his stomach with his head against the car door. After failing to find a pulse, they began resuscitation efforts and called an ambulance.
Saldivar never regained consciousness, and his family removed him from life-support on May 17.
Tests showed no illegal drugs in Saldivar's blood, but he had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.299 percent, more than three times the legal drunk-driving limit. Associate State Medical Examiner Dr. Jonathan Thompson concluded Saldivar died as a result of positional asphyxia, which occurs when a person’s posture hinders their ability to breathe.
Sgt. Cristy Hamblin, a police spokeswoman, said now that the county attorney was done with his review, the department would do its own internal investigation.
“We’ll simply look at what policies or procedures were involved in this case and see if there is anything we need to do differently,” Hamblin said.
Gandara, one of Saldivar’s five siblings, said she does not believe that her brother was conscious when he was put into the back of the squad car. She said he should have been able to move enough to be able to breathe properly, if he was as combative as the report indicates.
Gandara also questions why three officers couldn’t control her brother enough to get him secured by a seat belt.
“I feel that if they would have seat belted him in, he’d still be here,” Gandara said.
According to department policy, anyone who is arrested should be handcuffed and “shall be seat belted prior to transport.” But the policy also indicates seat-belting is not mandatory in all cases.
“Special circumstances applicable to the original restraint of the arrestee will provide rationale for the inability to seat belt the arrestee. All circumstances disallowing restraint and seat belting of arrestees will be recorded in the Officer’s Case Investigation Report or in (an) Incident Report form to the case,” the policy says.
Gandara said her family was angered that they learned about the final findings from a reporter, not from the County Attorney’s Office. Vander Sanden acknowledged Thursday that neither Saldivar’s family nor the officers involved were notified before his report was released to the media.
“There was no common courtesy,” Gandara said. “That was absolute disrespect. I’m ashamed to be a part of this city. We deserved more respect than that.”
Vander Sanden said he assumed it was public knowledge that his office had been reviewing findings from the Division of Criminal Investigation. He said no one from the family had inquired with his office about the status of the investigation.
The officers involved with Saldivar’s arrest declined to comment through a spokesperson, citing the internal investigation and potential civil lawsuit.
Gandara said her family is a long way from closure. She said they are coming to the realization that they may never have answers to all their questions.
“It’s hard, because I have a son that looks just like Paul when he was little,” Gandara said. “It’s something I deal with every day. It’s not something that just goes away. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t miss my brother.”
Official Report from the Linn County Attorney's Office: