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SF paramedic accused of choking woman, officer fired for alleged cover-up

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San Francisco Fire Department paramedics respond to a call in the Tenderloin on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A veteran paramedic is facing criminal charges after a police body camera allegedly recorded him choking a woman who was threatening to take her own life in the Sunset District, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

Raymond Lee, 46, is accused of placing his hand on the agitated woman’s throat as an ambulance transported her to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital for a mental health detention last May. He also allegedly broke the woman’s arm in three places.

Lee retired from the San Francisco Fire Department on Friday, according to a source within the department. The 11-year veteran had been placed on desk duty while facing internal discipline for the alleged assault.

The Examiner has also learned that the officer who recorded the incident on body camera was fired in January for allegedly covering up for the paramedic. The rookie policeman, Officer Michael Filamor, hit the mute button on his body camera. The device stopped gathering sound, but continued to record video of the paramedic.

“You muted your body worn camera without cause,” San Francisco Police Department Chief Bill Scott wrote in a one-page termination letter. “At one point, the paramedic choked the patient in your presence. You failed to take action and failed to report the incident.”

The SFPD declined a public records request from the Examiner seeking a copy of the body camera footage, citing an open investigation.

The alleged assault raises questions around the level of training the fire department offers to firefighters and paramedics for dealing with the mentally ill. The incident, which has resulted in multiple civil lawsuits, also highlights an issue around officers using the mute function on their body cameras improperly.

Each year, emergency personnel respond to thousands of calls that result in people being transported to the hospital against their will on mental health detentions, otherwise known as 5150s. City data shows there were 6,844 mental health detentions in 2015-16.

While more than 800 police officers have undergone 48-hour Crisis Intervention Team training, most fire department personnel have not, according to David Elliot Lewis, a CIT trainer for the police department.

“Their training is sort of behind the times,” said Lewis, who called on the fire department to require a form of mandatory de-escalation training for all paramedics and firefighters.

“Almost every call they go to, a person is in crisis,” Lewis said.

SFFD spokesperson Jonathan Baxter declined to comment on the case, citing ongoing criminal and internal matters, but said the fire department does offer similar training to all firefighters and paramedics.

“There’s not a specific class in our department that’s called de-escalation training,” Baxter said “However, the purpose of it is put into different modules that we do in training throughout the year.”

Baxter said the fire department did put a six-person unit through the police class last year and plans to offer it to members over the coming years.

 
Legal fallout

In June, the District Attorney’s Office decided to charge the paramedic with three felonies, including assault under the color of authority. He has since pleaded not guilty to the charges.

“There will be consequences for public officers who abuse their authority,” said Max Szabo, a spokesperson for District Attorney George Gascon. “We simply can’t have caretakers engaging in behavior that is harmful to a patient in their care.”

James Bustamante, an attorney for Lee, did not return a call for comment.

Lee earned $121,992 a year in base pay as a paramedic, according to the Department of Human Resources.

Last month, the mother of the alleged victim sued The City in San Francisco Superior Court seeking unspecified damages.

The lawsuit claims Lee not only choked the woman but “made inappropriate comments” and “grabbed her arm in such a way as to fracture her radial ulna in three places.”

The family has declined to comment and The Examiner has decided not to name the woman or her mother because of the sensitive nature of the incident.

But Monica Castillo, an attorney for the mother, said her client brought the lawsuit to “stop this thing from happening to anyone else.”

Castillo is unclear why Lee allegedly injured the woman.

“I’ve tried to understand that, but no one has any idea,” Castillo said. “We don’t know if Mr. Lee has a history of this or anything.”

In August, Filamor sued the police department in federal court alleging wrongful termination, denying all allegations of misconduct and seeking reinstatement to the SFPD with full back pay and benefits. He was on probationary status as a new officer when Scott released him.

The lawsuit claims Filamor was not given the proper chance to defend himself internally and that “the misconduct findings are not supported by the evidence.”

The City Attorney’s Office is representing San Francisco in both lawsuits.

“We will address these matters in the appropriate venue, which is a court of law,” said John Cote, a spokesperson for the office.

The Examiner may not have learned the details of the incident had Filamor not filed his lawsuit, which includes police records and a narrative of the allegations. State law around police misconduct prevents the government from releasing information regarding disciplinary proceedings against officers.


A desperate situation

The alleged assault unfolded on the afternoon of May 23, 2017, when the 20-year-old woman with borderline personality disorder gave her mother an ultimatum: give her $1,000 to go to the Tenderloin or find her dead by suicide the next morning. The woman was awaiting placement at a drug treatment facility.

Caught in a desperate situation, the mother called police for help.

Officers who arrived at the two-story house near 17th Avenue and Lawton Street decided that an ambulance should take her daughter to the hospital to prevent her from relapsing on heroin and methamphetamine, or worse.

She had become agitated and paramedics needed to restrain her to a stretcher with soft restraints. At some point, Lee allegedly broke her arm.

“She continued to wail and yell that she was being mistreated, asking [Lee] why he had broken her arm,” according to the lawsuit from Filamor.

Once in the ambulance, the body camera allegedly recorded Lee choking her.

But Filamor claims “that it did not look like choking as the woman did not change her behavior or complain that anything additional was being done to her.”

The lawsuit describes the alleged choking as momentary and appearing as if “it could have been a medical procedure or task” rather than seemingly untoward.


Disabling the mute button

Last July, less than two months after the incident, Scott issued a bulletin requiring officers who mute their body camera to document the reason for disabling the sound on their device.

In January, the Police Commission voted to adopt changes to the body camera policy including prohibiting officers from using the function altogether.

But that change is tied up in a meet-and-confer process with the San Francisco Police Officers Association.

“The mute function on body-worn cameras is unnecessary and subject to misuse and abuse,” said Police Commission member John Hamasaki. “Police officers aren’t lawyers and asking them to make split-second decisions on potential evidence is unfair to both the officer and the investigation.”

“Any privacy concerns can be addressed with supervisors after an incident and remedied through editing,” Hamasaki said.

Officers can currently mute their devices for several reasons including protecting patient confidentiality.


Going forward

Lee is scheduled to appear in court at the Hall of Justice Nov. 7 for a pretrial hearing.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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