A federal jury on Thursday found Rohnert Park police liable for the heart attack death of a man officers had held down on the floor of a motel room two years ago, even after he was handcuffed.
Branch Wroth died back in May 2017 at the Budget Inn on Redwood Drive, soon after police were called there because he had failed to check out on time.
The 41-year-old back hoe driver, disoriented and high on methamphetamine, scuffled with officers who eventually held him down on the floor of his room. The autopsy found he suffered a heart attack and ruled his death a homicide.
Wroth’s family told NBC Bay Area they hope the jury’s $4 million judgment will compel the department to change after it has maintained its officers did nothing wrong that day.
“My expectation of the police is always protect and serve. In this case it was essentially beat and suffocate,” said Wroth’s father, Christopher.
“It’s cruel,” was how Marni Wroth summed up what happened to her son that day.
The video showed Wroth was not wearing pants and told the officers summoned to the motel that he thought his clothes were contaminated by poisonous detergent.
He resisted when officers tried to arrest him on a DUI warrant. The officers struck him with a flashlight and used a stun gun on Wroth six times while he was standing. After handcuffing him on the floor, the officers held him down with a knee against his back. The body cameras the officers wore recorded Wroth repeatedly asking for help, and at one point saying: “I can’t breathe.”
His mother said her son did not have a history of violence and did not pose any threat. She said he was in distress and deserved compassion.
“It was undeniable, he needed help -- and was ignored.”
“He needed a hero,” Christopher Wroth added. “There were no heroes in that room.”
Izaak Schwaiger, attorney for the family, said officers testified they didn’t believe Wroth when he told them he wasn’t able to breathe.
“If a person says they can’t breathe, you do something about it, you check them,” he said. “They didn’t check Branch Wroth, so he died….It was totally avoidable.”
Schwaiger argued that Wroth suffocated as the result of a phenomenon known as positional asphyxia, but the city disputed that claim to the jury.
Schwaiger said after the verdict he talked to the jury about the outcome.
“I think the jury wanted to tell this particular police department that they need to change the way they do business,” he said, “and I think that message is going to get through.”
Attorneys for the city maintained in the two-week trial that the responding officers heeded department’s policies after Wroth resisted being arrested for a misdemeanor warrant, related to a DUI case.
In a statement issued late Thursday, the city called Wroth’s death “unfortunate,” but added the case is not over, given that the judge has yet to rule on a legal challenge related to allegations involving training that could invalidate the verdict.
The county district attorney, the city concluded, found the officers acted lawfully and use of force was warranted.