Marksvillefolo

Avoyelles Parish Sheriff’s Office’s Sgt. Alexander M. Daniel, Lt. Kenneth W Parnell III and Dep. Brandon S. Spillman

The man choked to death by deputies last year after he refused to dismount a tractor in Marksville had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia nearly five years before his death and had a history of run-ins with the authorities in Avoyelles Parish, raising questions about the approach officers took in arresting the mentally ill man on a felony warrant. 

The Avoyelles Parish Sheriff's Office referred Armando Frank to the local coroner in 2013 for psychiatric treatment, according to hundreds of medical and law enforcement records obtained by The Advocate. In Louisiana, coroners are responsible for mental health commitments. 

Records from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs show Frank suffered from chronic anxiety, "difficulty coping" and hallucinations, among other complications. In 2016, following a dispute with neighbors, Frank received court-ordered treatment at a VA hospital in Pineville. 

"He has a long history of being non-compliant, even during most of his recent incarceration," officials noted in an August 2017 discharge note. Other records quote a family member saying that Frank "is always thinking someone is out to get him, and he walks a lot at night due to fear." 

Despite this history, authorities did not deploy a crisis intervention team when they arrested Frank on Oct. 20 in a Marksville parking lot. Frank, 44, died following a violent encounter with two Avoyelles deputies, Brandon Spillman and Alexander Daniel, and Marksville police officer Kenneth Parnell. 

The officers wrestled Frank off his tractor as they sought to arrest him on a warrant for simple criminal trespassing and attempted unauthorized entry into a dwelling. Frank resisted for several minutes, swinging his arms at the officers and demanding they provide him a copy of the outstanding warrant. Daniel's body camera footage shows Spillman mount the tractor behind Frank and apply a choke hold while another officer attempts to pull the man down from the vehicle.

Joe Long, a Baton Rouge attorney who filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Frank's family, said Friday that it is "obvious that law enforcement in Avoyelles Parish is not properly trained on how to handle these kinds of cases." 

"The Sheriff's Office had institutional knowledge of this situation," Long said of Frank's mental illness. "They were aware he was a veteran. They were aware he had mental health issues and that he might become kind of paranoid like this." 

Indeed, the video shows that when the officers first approached him, they asked him if he was a veteran, and noted their own service in the military.

A forensic pathologist hired by the parish determined Frank died of manual strangulation, and that the officers compromised his breathing for more than six minutes by placing him in neck holds and pressing him from behind.

Frank's death was ruled a homicide, but an Avoyelles Parish grand jury in March declined to charge the officers involved in his death. Prosecutors asked the panel to consider charges of negligent homicide against the lawmen, all of whom testified about their roles in the arrest. 

Can't see video below? Click here.

District Attorney Charles Riddle said the responding officers had no specific knowledge of Frank's schizophrenia. He added that he believed it would be a potential privacy violation for police officers to be aware of a suspect's mental health issues.  

"He was known to drive his tractor around a lot, so that was part of the investigation. He had some other crimes before that we tried to work out before and tried to get him some at help at the VA," Riddle said in an interview Friday. "It's very difficult when somebody's resisting arrest for a police officer not to get rough, but rough doesn't necessarily mean negligent homicide (in this case)." 

The Avoyelles Parish Sheriff's Office has not responded to a public-records request seeking details about its use-of-force policy. But Riddle said the investigation did not find any policy violations on the part of the two deputies or the Marksville officer. 

"I do not believe that the police used any improper technique or force," the district attorney added. "The only way to avoid what ended up happening was to not arrest him on a felony warrant, and that would have been very poor judgment." 

Avoyelles Parish Sheriff Doug Anderson and Marksville Police Chief Elster Smith Jr. did not respond to requests for comment on their department's use-of-force policies. 

Experts on use of force interviewed by The Advocate have disagreed on whether police used excessive force in arresting Frank. 

While he was unarmed, Frank was "actively resisting" and could have endangered many lives had he decided to flee on his tractor, said Joseph L. Giacalone, a former New York City police detective and adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"The police don't get paid to argue with people, and you don't fight your case when you're out in the street," Giacalone said. "I don't see any wrongdoing here on the part of the police."

Had the officers been aware of Frank's mental health issues, Giacalone said it would have been appropriate for them use de-escalation techniques designed for dealing with so-called "emotionally distributed persons," a designation that law enforcement use to describe people suffering from mental health or other problems that cause erratic behavior. 

"In that case, you call in a supervisor and wait for emergency services or a SWAT team," Giacalone said. "Mr. Frank has to understand that he's going to the hospital or to prison."

W. Loyd Grafton, a former federal agent and use of force expert, said that Frank's arrest — and subsequent death — was "just poor policing, anyway you look at it." He said it was foolish of law enforcement to attempt to arrest Frank while he was sitting on his tractor

"They weren't reasonable in the way they tried to take him into custody, and they set themselves up to have a problem," Grafton said. 

Grafton also took issue with the choke hold used by Spillman, saying that technique should be banned by the Sheriff's Office and every other law enforcement agency. 

Frank's death is in some ways reminiscent of the case of Eric Garner, who was killed in 2014 by a New York police officer who placed him in a fatal choke hold. A Staten Island grand jury declined to charge the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, but the case remains under investigation by federal authorities.   

Garner was black, and the officers who choked him were white. His death is one of a raft of such cases that have prompted outrage in African-American communities across the nation in recent years.

Frank was also black, and the three officers involved in his fatal arrest were white. The case has yet to spark any similar protest, though the video was widely viewed and shared on social media in recent days.

It's not clear whether the U.S. Justice Department has opened a similar inquiry into Frank's death. David Joseph, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, said through a spokesman that "our office is aware of this case, but does not generally comment on the existence or status of pending matters."

Craig Betbeze, a spokesman for the FBI's New Orleans Field Division said he could "neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation."

Louisiana State Police assisted in the investigation of Frank's death. Riddle said the agency agreed with the findings of the Avoyelles Parish Sheriff's Office that the officers had not used excessive force. 

Youngsville pathologist Christopher Tape found that Frank had cardiovascular disease, but that that condition "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."

The warrant stemmed a dispute Frank had with neighbors. 

Spillman wrote in his police report that Frank, who was 6 feet tall and weighed more than 270 pounds, became physically aggressive, and "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.

Riddle said he had no concerns about the case before he received Tape's report. "That's why I brought it to the grand jury," the district attorney said. "I had thought everything was OK."

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.