A SEPTA transit police officer has been cleared of any wrongdoing after he Tased an aggressive man high on PCP last October.
During a press briefing Monday afternoon from SEPTA headquarters, Transit Police Chief Thomas Nestel III revealed the findings of an internal affairs investigation into the death of Omar Lopez, which occurred while in police custody in the early morning hours of Oct. 26, 2015.
Police said no fault was found on the part of the officer, whose name is not being released to the public, and the Philadelphia Medical Examiner ruled Lopez’s death an accident. Lopez's death was apparently caused by Acute Phencyclidine Toxicity – commonly from an overdose of the drug PCP, or angel dust.
“PCP is known to cause agitation and violent behavior and it was determined that the officer’s actions were appropriate and within the guidelines of departmental policy,” said Nestel.
“The loss of life is always a tragedy, and when a police officer reports for duty, he or she hopes to save a life or to make a positive difference for someone else. When a critical incident occurs in our police department, we take a long, hard look at what occurred.”
The transit police officer linked to last October’s in-custody death of Lopez has received serious death threats on the Internet and police are taking all precautions, according to authorities.
Nestel said police picked up a threat on Facebook late last week in the form of an image of an AR-15 targeted at the officer who tussled with Lopez, and thus, they’re keeping his identity a secret.
Results of the internal affairs investigation show that it was just before 2 a.m. on Oct. 26, 2015 when Lopez was trying to take a train from SEPTA’s Huntington Station at Huntington Street and Kensington Avenue. At the time, the officer on duty told Lopez the station was closing, police said.
Lopez claimed he needed to get on a train because a man on the street had been threatening him. The officer said he surveyed the scene and found no immediate threat, so he told Lopez to leave. Seconds later, a fight ensued between Lopez and another instigator, police said, and that’s when things got ugly.
According to police, the transit officer got in between the two men and tried to calm an agitated Lopez, who allegedly aimed his aggression at the cop. The men struggled for eight minutes, police said, during which time the officer used his Taser on Lopez 10 times.
According to the officer, Lopez did not seem to feel the pain administered to his front and rear torso and not once was it successful in suppressing him.
Radio dispatch received calls for backup from the officer six times in six minutes, but the officer could not convey his exact location clearly so that communications personnel could hear him.
Soon after, firefighters arrived on scene and helped handcuff Lopez and transport him to Frankford Aria Hospital – which was not the nearest hospital.
Firefighters reported that Lopez was conscious and alert when he in the vehicle and didn't show signs of injury or complain of any.
Yet, upon arrival at Frankford Aria, after seven minutes in the vehicle with police, Lopez was not breathing and had no pulse. He was pronounced dead at 2:54 a.m.
Video surveillance of the scene shows Lopez and the officer rolling around on the ground with the officer activating his Taser multiple times. The officer suffered a bite on the wrist, injuries to his knees and was unable to return to active duty until this past weekend, said Nestel.
As a result of a review of this incident, Nestel said that several procedural changes have occurred, including the implementation of status updates of officer locations when closing up transit stations, GPS technology to track equipment and personnel and a verification process that's now in place when an officer is transporting a person to a hospital.
A transit police sergeant who was supervising the scene that morning has been disciplined for department policy violations, including failing to have Lopez transported to the nearest hospital and failing to obtain witness information at the scene. Episcopal Hospital was about a half mile away from SEPTA’s Huntington Station, whereas Frankford Aria is 3.3 miles away.
“We ended up getting one witness’ name, address and phone number, but all of that was false information,” said Nestel.