The death of a 39-year-old man in Rochester police custody last year was “tragic,” Chief Jim Franklin says, but he stands by his officer’s actions in the traffic stop that led to the tragedy.
The incident, a March 27, 2019, traffic stop that claimed the life of Albert Dashow, Franklin says, reflects many of the struggles police have in responding to people who are in the midst of a mental health crisis.
“In many respects, this incident is symptomatic of a larger problem facing law enforcement, dealing with mental health issues and people in crisis. Officers are dealing with people in crisis every day,” Franklin said.
“I would say that it’s tragic, but it's also a reflection of the complexity of law enforcement today, the demands being placed on the officers. It’s why, as we re-imagine how we can provide public safety at a higher level for this community, it’s why it’s important to explore all options, including having social workers working alongside us to help diffuse these situations as we go forward.”
Dashow died in the hands of responding officers after he was pulled over for a seemingly routine traffic violation. His family later told law enforcement that Dashow was struggling with his mental health at the time. Video from officers’ body cameras and squad dash cams shows him behaving erratically, and not following officers’ instructions. At one point, Dashow drove away from the traffic stop, before parking a short distance away, then walked away from the officer.
An officer responded to Dashow by shouting and pulling his Taser. A second responding officer pulled Dashow to the ground. Dashow died as officers handcuffed him and performed a search of his pockets. The medical examiner ruled Dashow’s death a homicide and attributed the medical cause to heart issues and stress associated with being restrained.
After realizing Dashow’s life was in peril, officers “vehemently fought” to revive him, performing CPR for more than five minutes, Franklin said. A review of state investigative records obtained by the Post Bulletin indicate that officers performed CPR on Dashow for 10 minutes before ambulance personnel took over. The paramedics then performed another 20 minutes of CPR and attempted additional medical interventions in the back of the ambulance.
“This was a terrible and tragic incident,” Franklin said. “The loss of life is an outcome that no one wants, no one intended or no one expected in this particular case.”
Outside review of body camera footage
Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, reviewed two of the body camera videos, one from Officer David Dezell and the other from Officer Wade Blazejak, at the request of the Post Bulletin. Kenney is a former police officer and a professor who has an expertise in police use of force.
Kenney noted in his review that his conclusions were limited to what he could see from body camera footage. He did not review the statements the officers gave to BCA investigators, nor any of the 333 pages of written reports the Post Bulletin received in response to a state records request.
Upon his review, Kenney said the stop was the “ideal case to de-escalate.” Kenney said in his view, the point at which Blazejak put his hands on Dashow to take him to the ground was excessive.
“The rules should be with use of force is that you are permitted to use enough force to overcome the resistance that you are meeting,” Kenney said. While Dashow was not cooperating, he wasn’t “physically, violently resisting.”
Franklin disagrees with Kenney’s assessment and said Blazejak did a “phenomenal job.” By the time of his arrival, Franklin said, Blazejak knew that an officer had made a traffic stop, had asked for a second car, and that the subject of the traffic stop had driven away and was resisting the officer.
Blazejak told a state investigator about a week after the incident: “As I exit my squad car, I have several things going through my mind. But most importantly, I understood that this guy … should be contained and apprehended to stop any further assault on officers or surrounding members of the public of getting inside of the public grocery store, getting hit by a car.”
Franklin said that based on the knowledge Blazejak had in front of him, there was a sense of necessity to take Dashow into custody.
Franklin also pointed to the interview officer Dezell gave to state investigators about unholstering his Taser, saying it showed Dezell was thinking things through and continuing to assess the situation as it unfolded. Dezell did not fire his Taser. He told investigators the situation did not rise to that need.
“This is how we train officers,” Franklin said. “We train our officers to continually assess and think through ‘What do I have in front of me? What is the appropriate response? What is the human response that I am viewing here and then taking appropriate action?' ”
Training and review
When asked how, as chief, he would make sure nothing like this incident happens again, Franklin said the department has been putting additional protocols in place since his arrival in July 2018.
One of those new protocols is the creation of a use-of-force review committee made up of a group of officers who review incidents to see whether officers followed department policies and the lessons of their training, and that they made good decisions under the circumstances they faced, Franklin said.
Franklin also said that the department was working to implement a Critical Incident Training (CIT) program as part of the eight-week rookie academy new officers go through.
The Rochester Police Department and Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office’s CIT program is a four-day, 40-hour program that combines lectures, guest speakers and role play to give officers skills they’ll need to de-escalate crisis situations.
About 80% of the members of the police department have gone through the training. The department is implementing “refresher” courses for officers who have already gone through the program.
At the time of the March 2019 traffic stop, of the first two officers on scene, Blazejak had gone through the program. Franklin said the coronavirus pandemic has slowed or halted the department’s training efforts over the past three months.
In recent weeks, Olmsted County has talked about expanding its embedded social worker program to provide around-the-clock access to officers responding to calls regarding people facing a mental health crisis.
On social media, some have asked if the presence of a social worker at Dashow’s stop could have saved his life. It's not known, though, if a social worker would have arrived in time. Police, Franklin said, have an obligation to stabilize situations before a social worker can get involved.
But such programs blending social services and law enforcement, he said, are the wave of the future.
“What we need to do in law enforcement today, right now, is ... take a hard look in the mirror, both personally and professionally, about how we can provide better public safety for this community,” Franklin said.