Albert Chatfield was hospitalized with a brain bleed after a confrontation with police officers in Kingstree, S.C. (Photo courtesy of Justin Bamberg)
Albert Chatfield has good days where he’s clear-eyed and lucid, quick with a joke and more than capable of taking care of himself in his home just north of Charleston.
But his family had begun to worry about the 86-year-old’s bad days. They fear it’s the earliest stage of dementia — blocks of time where he’s foggy about who or where he is, afraid of nonexistent dangers and wary of strangers.
Police encountered him on one of those bad days, his family’s attorney said, and their early-morning encounter in Kingstree, S.C., left Chatfield hospitalized in intensive care, bleeding from the brain and breathing only with the help of a ventilator.
Chatfield’s family is hoping for optimistic news from his doctors, who worry he won’t survive his injuries.
From the police, they simply want answers.
“They messed up big time,” their attorney, Justin Bamberg told The Washington Post, adding that he believes officers in Kingstree need additional training.
“This is a case of a mental-health issue, and officers not being properly trained to handle these situations. Not everyone that you run into that isn’t listening to you is a danger. Maybe they need help. Instead of helping, they put him in intensive care.”
Last weekend, Bamberg said, Chatfield had been confused, and called 911 several times. The subject matter was unclear, but authorities were worried enough to call his family. They made arrangements to take him to the doctor the next day.
Something went wrong before then.
Early Monday, someone called 911 saying a driver was behaving erratically, preventing a vehicle from turning. The wayward driver was Chatfield, and things got worse when officers arrived, according to the Kingstree News.
Chatfield sped away from police, running red lights, making turns at random.
His erratic behavior continued after he finally stopped at Main and Brooks streets. Officers ordered him to the ground, but he wouldn’t comply. Instead, he took what officers described as a fighting stance, according to a police report obtained by the Charleston Post & Courier. Then he started jogging backward.
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One of the responding officers shocked him with a Taser, which uses a jolt of electricity to seize a person’s muscles.
Chatfield crashed to the ground, hitting his head and injuring his nose. Pictures sent to The Washington Post showed him with gashes on his face as well.
Police Chief James Barr could not be reached for comment on Saturday. He told news outlets that Chatfield’s adversarial nature was the ultimate reason for the use of force.
“You have an elderly man still charging and he wants to fight the police so they got the [Taser] pulled on him to try and calm him down so they could talk to him,” Barr told the Kingstree News. He said Chatfield continued to resist officers after they handcuffed him and led him to the sidewalk.
“After we got the medical report now we understand why he was doing what he was doing,” Barr added. “But for officers’ safety and his safety, that’s why he was tased, because he was in a rage and trying to fight in the middle of the highway. We didn’t want the man to get hit.”
On Saturday, Bamberg said he took issue with the department’s rationale for using force. Chatfield wasn’t a danger to officers or other people — and he was outnumbered by police officers much younger than him.
“They are saying that due to traffic in this tiny town, we tased him for his own safety, and I find that extremely problematic,” Bamberg told The Post. “If traffic is what you were concerned about, why would you completely incapacitate an individual so he can’t get out of the way of traffic.
“It’s a clear lack of Taser training — a clear lack of understanding Constitutional restraint to use force on an individual. I think it is inhumane.”
The incident comes as police departments are under intense scrutiny for their use of force against suspects, particularly minorities.
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Chatfield is black. The officer who shocked him — Stephen Sweikata who’d worked in Kingstree since April — is white. Bamberg said he didn’t think race was explicitly at play, although they have not received dash cam footage and other evidence.
In 2015, 995 people were shot dead by police officers. Of those, 259 were black — more than one in four, according to a Washington Post database on police shootings. So far in 2017, 782 people have been shot and killed by police, 183 of whom were black.
Family members told the Post & Courier they were shocked to find themselves members of the fraternity of families who’ve had violent encounters with police. They have not ruled out a lawsuit, Bamberg said, but for now the focus is on Chatfield’s health.
And they were trying to reconcile the jovial, funny patriarch of their family with the police description of a man so threatening an officer had to pull out a Taser.
“He wouldn’t hurt anybody,” his daughter, Jodi Mack, told the Post & Courier. “He would only make you hurt laughing.”
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