A criminal justice expert says Avoyelles Parish law officers who wrestled a Marksville man off a tractor while serving an arrest warrant last year used too much force, needlessly escalating a confrontation that ended with the man's death. A second expert said he doesn't agree the officers used excessive force, but said they may have acted negligently by failing to administer aid once Armando Frank was unconscious.
A video recording of the arrest, obtained by The Advocate, shows officers growing frustrated with Frank, 44, after he refuses to step down from a tractor near a Walmart store along La. 1. A use-of-force expert who reviewed the 10-minute recording at the newspaper's request says the law officers escalated the exchange by placing Frank in a choke hold and attempting to yank him off the tractor.
“His level of resistance starts out as passive. It doesn’t go to active and aggressive until he’s physically assaulted by these deputies," Gregory Gilbertson, director of the criminal justice program at Centralia College in Centralia, Washington, said Thursday.
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Last Oct. 20, two sheriff’s deputies, Brandon Spillman and Alexander Daniel, along with Marksville Police officer Kenneth Parnell, tried to force Frank from his tractor. Spillman, Daniel and Parnell are named defendants in a civil rights lawsuit. There were other law enforcement personnel on the scene, according to the Sheriff's Office.
A forensic pathologist hired by the parish had said in a report that manual strangulation was the primary cause of Frank’s death. The video shows Spillman mount the tractor behind Frank and apply a choke hold while another officer tries to pull him down. For a time, Frank is doubled-over while resisting. Officers had to carry Frank to a patrol car after his body went limp.
Gilbertson said Frank’s questions as to what he was being arrested for, and who signed the warrant, were reasonable.
“There’s no exigent circumstance here,” Gilbertson said Thursday. “He’s not attempting to flee, he’s not assaulting anybody, he’s sitting on a tractor and he’s asking reasonable questions they are refusing to answer.”
The hold that Spillman used, known as a lateral vascular neck restraint, is typically a last resort, given the potential to restrict airflow, Gilbertson said.
Manual strangulation was the primary cause of death of Armando Frank, the 44-year-old Marksville man who died during an October 2017 struggle …
“Most agencies now only authorize their officers to use it in ground-fighting situations where deadly force is their only other option,” Gilbertson said. “They might have pacified Mr. Frank if he had known what the warrant was for.”
Spillman acknowledged to Sheriff’s Office detective Mike Simmons that he “grabbed Armando from behind, but never applied any pressure to the throat,” according to Simmons’ report.
Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University, disagreed that the officers were to blame for escalating the conflict. Officers are entitled to use as much force as necessary while making an arrest, Stinson said.
“When a police officer says that they have a warrant for you, you need to get off the tractor and come with us, that’s not negotiable. You can’t negotiate that, even if it turns out there wasn’t a warrant or it was an invalid warrant,” Stinson said.
At the same time, Stinson said, the officers could be liable for negligence — in a criminal, civil or administrative arena — because they failed to assist Frank when it was clear he was unconscious. An officer can be heard on the video saying Frank was “dead weighting” to prevent officers from picking him up.
“Once they got him on the ground and he’s dead weight, at that point I think it’s time to check his airway,” Stinson said. “He was unconscious. He had stopped breathing at that point at a minimum, it seems to me."
An Avoyelles Parish grand jury weighed negligent homicide charges against the law enforcement personnel, and in March declined to return any indictments.
“Every action of every individual involved that day was well documented,” said Steve Martel, chief deputy of the Sheriff’s Office, earlier this week. “All that information was provided to the district attorney in a case file for grand jury review.”
A public records request for the Avoyelles Parish Sheriff’s Office policy on choke holds like the one Spillman used on Frank is pending. Martel declined further comment. Attempts to reach Spillman and the other defendants have been unsuccessful. Martel said Spillman had been made aware of The Advocate’s request.
The report by Youngsville pathologist Christopher Tape labels the death a homicide for “medicolegal purposes,” noting that officers compromised Frank’s breathing for more than six minutes by placing him in neck holds and pressing him from behind. The report, which relies on an autopsy and body camera video, also notes that officers did not attempt to resuscitate Frank.
While cardiovascular disease and obesity contributed to Frank’s death, they “should not be thought of as the primary cause of death as the decedent was alive (and well) prior to the police intervention and dead following, making the police intervention the likely intervening factor that led to his death,” Tape said in his report.
District Attorney Charles Riddle said in an interview the grand jury heard Tape’s report “line by line,” but he seemed to dispute Tape’s conclusion that the officers’ intervention was to blame for Frank’s death.
He said Frank would probably still be alive if "had he not resisted" and not suffered from other health problems.
Riddle said the grand jury that declined to indict anyone saw the entire body cam video at least once and "saw certain portions of it on several occasions."
The outstanding warrant for simple criminal trespassing and attempted unauthorized entry into a dwelling stemmed from Frank’s dispute with his neighbors, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Disputes with other neighbors resulted in similar charges in 2016, but the District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute and Frank received court-ordered treatment at VA hospital in Pineville. Frank had denied there was a warrant when officers stopped him along the highway that day.
Spillman wrote in a narrative report that Frank, who was six feet tall and weighed more than 270 pounds, became physically aggressive, and that Frank “suddenly raised his hand toward my face” while Spillman stood on the right wheel well of the tractor.
Parnell then deployed his stun gun, to little effect, and Frank “continued actively resisting by pulling away from law enforcement personnel, violently thrashing about and became even more actively aggressive by striking personnel,” Spillman wrote.
As the struggle ensued, one of the other two officers again deployed a stun gun, but the shock hit Spillman instead of Frank.
Spillman wrote that Frank continued resisting after being forced off the tractor, and that he refused to comply with orders to stand to his feet.
“Law enforcement personnel appeared to continue struggling with Mr. Frank as they attempted to secure Mr. Frank in the back seat of Sergeant Daniel’s patrol vehicle,” Spillman wrote.
Tape’s review of body camera footage highlights several points at which Frank struggled to breathe — points that Spillman’s narrative and the Sheriff’s Office’s reports do not include. Louisiana State Police also investigated the incident, but State Police spokesman Scott Moreau referred all questions to the Sheriff’s Office, which he said is the lead agency in the investigation.
Spillman’s neck hold on Frank was temporarily interrupted by the errant stun gun strike, Tape notes, at which point Frank could be heard breathing heavily. The struggle continued once Frank was off the tractor, with Frank coughing as he was pressed onto the tractor from behind, according to Tape’s report.
Less than half a minute later, Frank “can be heard to be coughing and gasping,” Tape wrote, and law enforcement continued pressing him against the tractor for another 78 seconds. During this time, Frank said “let me up” three times “in an increasingly deep and strained voice,” Tape wrote, adding that this was Frank’s “last verbal communication.”