by Jeremy Miller
On April 3rd of this year, the entire world was focused on the San Francisco Police Department. A scandal had emerged surrounding the federal corruption case of former Sgt. Ian Furminger, a 20-year veteran San Francisco police officer who had been convicted in December of stealing money and property from suspects and who also was one of the killers of Idriss Stelley in 2001.
A spate of violent text messages sent between SFPD officers was exposed including declarations of “White Power,” verbal assaults on Mexicans, Filipinos, homosexuals and others, as well as on Black people, referencing lynching and burning crosses. Due to the international attention that this scandal engendered, SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, the highest paid cop in the country, moved to dismiss seven of the 14 officers implicated in a charade of accountability.
Yet while people debated via social media the meaning or merits of this distasteful police behavior, the SFPD, in collusion with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, was cleaning up and covering up fresh blood. Another Black man had been killed while in the custody of San Francisco law enforcement. His name was Darnell Benson.
Darnell’s true final day, April 3, 2015 – as I am not counting the three subsequent days he spent on life support in San Francisco General Hospital – began with turbulence. Around a quarter past 10:00 in the morning, the Department of Emergency Management (911) was called by an as yet unidentified resident of the Aspen South Hills Apartment Complex on Kiska Road in Hunters Point. Allegedly Darnell was on the balcony of one of the apartments exhibiting non-violent behavior that nevertheless was a cause for concern.
Sgt. Feliks Gasanyan (Badge No. 4224) and Officers John Norment (641), Robin Odum (983), Christopher Dunne (1775) and Cory Foss (4188) arrived on the scene. Allegedly Darnell had a conversation with a maintenance man and made a declaration that he was “just minding his own business.”
As emergency services had already been contacted, this statement did not preclude a law enforcement encounter. While the specifics of this initial encounter are unclear, as the police report is still unavailable, it resulted in Darnell being arrested and taken to the Bayview Police Station.
The police, in verbal communication with the family, have given several justifications for taking Darnell into custody, but the reason that seems the most likely is a 5150 WIC hold. This code refers to a psychiatric involuntary detention where the individual is assessed as constituting a “danger to himself or others.”
While people debated via social media the meaning or merits of this distasteful police behavior, the SFPD, in collusion with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, was cleaning up and covering up fresh blood. Another Black man had been killed while in the custody of San Francisco law enforcement. His name was Darnell Benson.
One of the most common applications of this code is suicidal ideation and/or behavior. This explanation makes sense based on the relative lack of charges against Darnell and the fact that Darnell had used mental health care since 2004 and had “5150’d himself” several times in recent years. What makes less sense is where Darnell was taken.
Before continuing with the story of Darnell’s final day, it is imperative to have an understanding of who Darnell Benson was. Born on the 4th of July in 1974, Darnell was a lifelong San Franciscan. According to his family, he was highly intelligent, had the “gift of gab” and since childhood was always very driven.
He also generally had a strong sense of self-esteem; as a child he believed that all the fireworks and community celebration on the 4th of July were for him! There was a lot of moving around in his early years but due to the love of a large extended family, Darnell was able to carve out a healthy childhood punctuated by a strong work ethic, a love of athletics and spiritual sensibilities acquired at New Providence Baptist Church, where he was baptized in 1983.
This is not to say that Darnell’s life was without struggle. Like many other impoverished lower working class Black men of Darnell’s and subsequent generations, he was enticed by “The Game.” Though as disciplined in his conduct of these illicit activities as he was in all of his other enterprises, Darnell did eventually get caught and spent approximately six years on and off in jails and prisons.
While inside, Darnell continued his self-development and, much like El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X), in 2004 left the hustler lifestyle to become a very devout Muslim. He followed this path to the extent that even as recently as his last few days of life he was chided by his family for giving all his money away to others in need.
Darnell battled for his mental health as devoutly as he did for his spiritual health. As a high functioning multiple diagnosis individual, he attempted many interventions including pharmacopeia, both prescribed and self-medicating, conversations with his beloved brother Derrick and, when necessary, self-imposed hospitalization – what he called “5150ing” himself.
His mental health conditions became significantly more pronounced subsequent to an aneurism that Darnell suffered in 2002. Yet none of this would stop Darnell from pursuing a life-affirming path that included marriage, working many jobs, including his last one at Uber, owning his own town car business, following his brother’s path into college – he was pursuing a degree at City College of San Francisco – and fatherhood. According to his daughter, Darion, “He sees by faith, not by sight.”
This then was the man who was taken into custody on the 3rd of April. As noted earlier, where he was taken is bizarre. A 5150 call requires that the individual be transported to SF General Hospital, yet he was initially taken to the Bayview Police Station.
Shortly thereafter he was transported by Officer Tommie Bartley (Badge No. 532) to the San Francisco Sherriff’s Department facility at 425 Seventh St., a jail adjacent to the main county jail at 850 Bryant St. It is apparent based upon this behavior that the SFPD had no intention of taking Darnell somewhere where he could receive medical assistance.
At the Sheriff’s Department around noon is when things began to unravel. Darnell, for reasons unknown, was taken into CJ1 (County Jail 1), strip searched, and triaged by JPS (Jail Psychiatric Services), a non-profit company that contracts with the City for in-custody psychiatric care.
Where he was taken is bizarre. A 5150 call requires that the individual be transported to SF General Hospital, yet he was initially taken to the Bayview Police Station.
The triage nurse determined that Darnell fit the criteria for a 5150 (involuntary psychiatric hold) and, based upon their protocols, he was refused admittance to the jail and diverted to where he should have originally been taken, San Francisco General Hospital. Here the details become fuzzy.
As Darnell was escorted from CJ1 to the sally port (secure entrance) of the jail, a conflict arose between Darnell and his captors. We know that at minimum Officers Tommie Bartley (532), Cory Foss (4188) and Robin Odum (983) were involved in this conflict. Moments later, Sherriff’s Deputies were called for backup, and those officers were joined by Officers Jonathon Lucchetti (1655), Paul Lujano (866), as well as Sgt. Feliks Gasanyan (4224) of the SFPD.
It is unclear what personnel from the Sherriff’s Department arrived. EMTs provided by American Medical Response arrived and found Darnell in a four-point restraint forced into a prone position – essentially hog-tied – and with four officers holding him.
By other accounts, as many as seven people were involved in the altercation. Darnell’s hands and feet were shackled. His face was also covered. The EMTs administered the maximum 5mg dose of Versed, a powerful tranquilizer that can cause breathing difficulties and has a common side effect of amnesia.
He was bruised and bleeding from his mouth. Darnell was taken to San Francisco General Hospital in this state, but his heart gave out. Paramedics attempted to revive him, but he never came back and was declared dead three days later, April 6, 2015, at SF General Hospital, where he had been on life support.
The SFPD quickly covered their ass, as Darnell was already dying, by filing a form ludicrously asserting that Darnell had only been detained and not arrested. Upon questioning, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi – with Chief Legal Counsel Freya Horne present – asserted that they had refused custody of Darnell, implying that they felt they shouldn’t be held responsible even though a prisoner was killed at their jail.
The SFPD quickly covered their ass, as Darnell was already dying, by filing a form ludicrously asserting that Darnell had only been detained and not arrested.
It should be noted here that Darnell Benson’s killing occurred exactly six months to the day of Antolin Marenco’s untimely death at the same facility. When informed of Benson’s death, Antolin Marenco’s mother, Janet Planells, empathized with the family.
“I am deeply saddened by another senseless death at the SF County Jail. Where is the justice for them and their families? What would you do if it happened to your son or daughter? This behavior is so blatant and shameful and it is slowly killing the soul of our city. Are we willing to let that happen?”
What we don’t know, what we know
We do not know exactly why Darnell Benson was at the Aspen South Hills Apartment Complex. We do not known why Darnell was not taken immediately to SF General Hospital following his arrest. We do not know what exactly the SFPD planned to charge Darnell with to justify his arrest.
We do not know exactly what happened in County Jail 1 or the sally port that led to his ultimately fatal beating and drugging by SFPD and auxiliary medical personnel. We do not know the identity of all people present during this fatal assault.
It should be noted here that Darnell Benson’s killing occurred exactly six months to the day of Antolin Marenco’s untimely death at the same facility.
We do know that Darnell was arrested for a non-violent offense. We do know that Darnell never should have been at the county jail. We do know that Darnell was physically assaulted by officers, while restrained by handcuffs, at the county jail.
We do know that Darnell was denied his legally required medical care until it was too late. We do know that Darnell was administered the maximum dose of a heavy tranquilizer despite the fact that there was no way of anyone present having a comprehensive understanding of his medical history or potentially hazardous pre-conditions.
We do know that multiple officers involved have a history of assaulting Black men. We do know that subsequent to his death, both the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department and the San Francisco Police Department have been covering up this assassination.
We do know that Darnell Benson did not have to die. We do know that we need justice for Darnell Benson now! We do know that all this happened while we were “twitterpated” by another SFPD scandal involving racist text messages. In short: Wake up! This is the murderous behavior of San Francisco law enforcement that occurs while you are tweeting.
Darnell Benson is at least the fourth person to die of unnatural causes at a San Francisco jail since August 2014. The others are Brette Robinson (Aug. 23, 2014), Antolin Marenco (Oct. 3, 2014) and Alvin Haynes (Jan. 26, 2015). If you include all unnatural deaths in SF law enforcement custody, the list becomes much longer.
Darnell Benson is at least the fourth person to die of unnatural causes at a San Francisco jail since August 2014.
Requiem for Darnell Benson
It is fully expected that San Francisco City Hall’s very polished PR machine and their corporate media courtesans, in defense of their “civil servants,” will conduct the typical character assassination campaign against Darnell Benson following the exposure of this state-sanctioned and enforced crime. For those reading who would be potentially moved by such propaganda, I would like to share this:
Darnell’s love was so great that it transcended his untimely death. Darnell Benson was a registered organ donor. The successful transplantation of his kidneys has greatly improved others’ lives. The successful transplantation of his liver has saved a life.
Yet while other families are celebrating their new lease on life, Darnell’s family is enduring the compounded grief of not only having to bury their loved one, but also having to defend his memory against the prevarications of those who are only concerned about their financial and legal liability and preserving a wretched status quo. In short: DON’T BUY THE HYPE!
To quote Darnell’s 11-year-old daughter, Darion, “Kindness is his way of touching people’s hearts. By all means, he touched a lot. A giving and kind man deserves justice and a stand.” Darion and her late father deserve a city that will heed her call.
Jeremy Miller is program director for the Idriss Stelley Foundation, part of the POOR Magazine family, a member of the San Francisco No-Taser Task Force, and a graduate of San Francisco State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.