Eight Months After In-Custody Death, a Brother Still Hunts for Answers

A photograph of Darnell Benson that appeared on the program for his funeral. (Photo Courtesy Derrick Benson)

It was a little after 10 a.m. on April 3, 2015, that Darnell Benson was reported to be standing on a stranger’s balcony at a Bayview apartment complex and threatening to jump.

A woman who lived there spotted him and phoned her mother, who in turn dialed 911, according to Sgt. Michael Andraychak, a San Francisco Police Department spokesman.

“The resident reported a male was threatening to jump from the balcony,” according to a San Francisco medical examiner’s report obtained by KQED. “When officers arrived, they approached the subject, and convinced him to come off of the balcony.”

Less than three hours later, Benson lost his pulse in an ambulance en route to San Francisco General Hospital, with a police officer by his side. He regained a pulse thanks to work by paramedics but ultimately landed in the intensive care unit, where a CT scan revealed loss of brain function. Benson died three days later.

Family members snapped pictures of him as he was lying in the hospital bed. The photos show a deep purple bruise across his face and another bruise on the top of his head. The medical examiner’s report later documented bruises on his back and abrasions on his wrists.

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The details of what happened from the time Benson was arrested until the time he was lying on a gurney and rushed through the doors of the emergency room differ slightly, depending on which city agency you ask. Eight months after his death, parallel investigations into the incident remain underway at the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department and the SFPD.

Arrested for Traffic Warrant

Benson, who was 5-foot-10 and weighed 215 pounds, was a father who “was very religious and ... had changed his life, like the course of his life,” according to his brother, Derrick Benson, who described Darnell as a devout Muslim who was caring and had signed up to be an organ donor. The 40-year-old black San Francisco resident had been working several jobs, according to his obituary, including as an Uber driver.

Benson had also cycled in and out of the criminal justice system and battled psychological issues in the past -- he’d previously been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and PTSD. He'd been hospitalized, too, having suffered a gunshot wound in the early 1990s and a brain aneurysm about a decade later.

“For years they said that, you know, he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and stuff like that,” Derrick Benson said, noting that he and his brother rarely discussed such things, even though they were close. “That would have been like, you know, irrelevant conversation for me and him."

Brothers Derrick and Darnell Benson, in an undated photo.
Brothers Derrick and Darnell Benson, in an undated photo. (Photo courtesy Derrick Benson)

Just after Benson was coaxed off the balcony, according to the SFPD’s Andraychak, officers placed him in handcuffs on suspicion of trespassing.

But “the resident declined to press charges for trespassing,” the police spokesman said. “He had an outstanding warrant for an arrest, so he was taken to Bayview Station.”

According to the medical examiner’s report, he was then arrested on an outstanding traffic warrant. Derrick Benson said he’d first learned of this in a conversation with Michael Hoogasian, an investigator with the medical examiner’s office, shortly after his brother had passed away.

“My question to Hoogasian immediately was: Why didn’t they get him the help that he needed?” Derrick Benson said. “Why would they take him to jail for a traffic warrant? It’s kind of well-known in San Francisco that traffic warrants and petty stuff like that, you know, you don’t even get taken to jail for that. You get cited out.”

Based on the medical examiner’s account, Benson appears to have been suicidal. A training manual issued by the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s Community Behavioral Health Services notes that police have probable cause to detain an individual when “the person … is a danger to himself or others.”

It’s protocol in these cases to transfer the individual to a designated facility, such as San Francisco General Hospital, for 72-hour psychiatric treatment and evaluation. In the state of California, that’s known as a 5150 hold.

“If SFPD determines that someone is a 5150 and they are taken to San Francisco General Hospital, we have our Psychiatric Services unit work with them,” Department of Public Health spokeswoman Nancy Sarieh explained in an email to KQED. In Benson’s case, this didn’t happen.

Refused From Jail

After his identity was confirmed and the warrant was verified, Benson was taken from the Bayview Police Station to the San Francisco County Jail at 425 Seventh St., according to Andraychak’s account and the medical examiner’s record.

“At the county jail,” sheriff's spokeswoman Kenya Briggs wrote in an email, “he was refused entry for medical reasons. He was referred to San Francisco General Hospital.”

Derrick Benson said that, as soon as funeral services for his brother ended, he started gathering every available scrap of information that offered clues about his brother’s death in an attempt to piece together a timeline. When he met with a “high-ranking member” of the Sheriff’s Department, he says he asked what happened when police officers brought his brother to the jail.

“What I was told was that my brother wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place,” Benson said. “They said, ‘When he got to our jail, we basically corrected a wrong,’ ” by referring him to the psych ward at S.F. General instead of allowing him to be booked.

According to the medical examiner’s record, “While in the process of being booked, [Benson] voiced suicidal ideations to a member of the jail staff. [He] was being prepared for transport to San Francisco General Hospital … when he became uncooperative with officers.”

Six-Minute Scuffle

His behavior had changed suddenly -- Benson was reportedly screaming, speaking nonsensically and threatening to kill himself, according to a note from a jail therapist that Derrick Benson allowed KQED to review.

“He became very agitated and aggressive,” Andraychak said. “He’d been cooperative throughout the entire process prior. He was restrained by sheriff’s deputies and a San Francisco police officer.”

According to the medical examiner’s report, officers put handcuffs on Benson’s wrists and ankles, and placed a spit mask over his face, all “while in the booking station.” But a handwritten note on an inpatient initial visit form prepared by a hospital employee provides a different account, saying Benson was “being taken out to [a] squad car when [he] began resisting, was wrestled to [the] ground, [and] placed in shackles. After about six minutes of a scuffle he stopped resisting and was noted to be less responsive.”

Benson’s brother says he’s examined the possible sequence of events from every angle. “From 12:18 … until the paramedics were by his side at 12:31, those 13 minutes right there, that window is where the unthinkable happens,” he said. “He was left ‘limp and unresponsive’ after this point. So he was already handcuffed … when the ambulance found him, he was hogtied. … I mean, what can you do, if you’re handcuffed and you’re in jail? I mean, how much can you do?”

The handwritten note on the hospital form contains another detail: “Unclear on timing, but got Versed and was placed in ambulance.” Versed is the brand name of a drug called midazolam, which is sometimes administered before surgical operations to decrease anxiety or cause a patient to forget the painful details of a procedure. Records suggest paramedics gave Benson the maximum recommended dose.

“While en route to the hospital, [Benson] became unresponsive,” the medical examiner’s report states, noting that paramedics initiated CPR on the way to the ER.

Death Ruled Accidental

For roughly eight months, the official cause of Benson’s death was listed as “pending.” In late November, the medical examiner released its final report, concluding that his death was an accident caused by “complications of acute methamphetamine and cocaine intoxication.”

Asked why it had taken so long to prepare the document, Medical Examiner's Office spokesman Christopher Wirowek answered, “Due to the location of the death, the totality of circumstance was carefully assessed before drawing a conclusion to this multifaceted interagency investigation.”

To date, a police incident report and a security video that captured officers’ handling of Benson at San Francisco County Jail have been withheld from Benson’s family and media on the grounds that they pertain to open and active investigations. The police officers involved in the incident were reassigned to administrative duties when the SFPD’s internal affairs and homicide detail divisions began looking into the matter, according to Andraychak.

Derrick Benson says he and his family have been left without a sense of closure. “For them to label my brother’s death some type of accidental drug thing, I feel like … he’s being maligned by the city and county of San Francisco,” he said. “Or they are quickly making determinations without looking at everything as a whole.”

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He said he views it as a matter of accountability. “It’s like everybody is so defensive, and tight-lipped. It’s nontransparent, you know, in a situation where somebody was killed. This is not the Wild, Wild West -- you have to have explanations today.”

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