Prater Family To Receive $1.5 Million Settlement In Death Of Man In Struggle With Police

Expert To Audit Internal Affairs Policies, Recruits To Get Special Training

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The family of a man who died after a struggle with city police will receive $1.5 million in an out-of-court-settlement, it was announced Wednesday.

Leslie Vaughn Prater died during the incident Jan. 2, 2004, after a number of officers were involved in taking him down after he took off his clothes and began acting strangely on Central Avenue.

Also as part of the settlement, an independent expert will conduct an audit of the Police Department’s Office of Internal Affairs regarding existing and recommended policies and procedures for Internal Affairs investigations.

The city police will consult with an independent expert regarding existing and recommended policies and procedures for current training on positional asphyxia and related topics.

Another part of the pact is that the victim's mother, Dr. Loretta Prater, will create a video explaining the loss of her son which will be shown to new recruits in several upcoming training academies or Ms. Prater will personally appear for a training session during the next three upcoming training academies for new police officers.

Neither side admitted any liability.

Police spokesman Tom Layne said, "On the evening of Jan. 2, 2004, Chattanooga police officers responded to a call that a naked man was standing near his vehicle on Flynn Street in Chattanooga.

"Two Chattanooga police officers initially located a man, later identified as Leslie Vaughn Prater, standing totally naked near Central Avenue. Mr. Prater was evasive and refused to answer any questions concerning his name or purpose. Mr. Prater made several attempts to walk towards his vehicle in an apparent attempt to leave the scene.

"Other officers arrived on the scene at Central Avenue and assisted in the investigation of the call. The officers present feared Mr. Prater would get into his vehicle or walk into the roadway unless he was taken into custody. The officers present determined that it was necessary to take Mr. Prater into custody for his own safety due to his condition at the scene. The officers could not have allowed Mr. Prater to leave the scene in his intoxicated condition in a motor vehicle based upon what the officers had observed. An autopsy later showed that Mr. Prater had been drinking alcohol and that he had consumed cocaine prior to his death that evening.

"Mr. Prater was taken to the ground by several officers, and four officers struggled and then held Mr. Prater for an extended period while they were trying to take him into custody. After several minutes, the officers were eventually able to handcuff Mr. Prater behind his back despite his continuing resistance. After Mr. Prater was handcuffed, the officers noticed Mr. Prater was not moving and was not breathing. At that time the officers promptly removed the handcuffs and prepared to provide medical resuscitation efforts to Mr. Prater. An ambulance was requested by the officers at the scene during the struggle, and emergency medical attention was given to Mr. Prater by emergency medical personnel dispatched to the scene. Mr. Prater was transported to Erlanger Medical Center by ambulance but Mr. Prater never regained consciousness.

"Mr. Prater’s decision to resist the officers’ attempts to place him into custody for his own safety did result in certain injuries that were consistent with a physical altercation of this severity and consistent with cardio-pulmonary resuscitation efforts, which is not an uncommon occurrence during CPR. It is clear that the ultimate cause of this man’s death was that his heart stopped after a lengthy physical exertion while officers were attempting to place him in custody.

"The exact cause of Mr. Prater’s death remains a mystery. The first autopsy done on Mr. Prater’s body found that his death was caused by “Positional Asphyxia during physical restraint in the setting of acute ethanol intoxication, catecholoamine excess cardiomyopathy, and mild obesity.” A second report by the State Medical Examiner requested by plaintiffs’ attorneys stated the cause of death as 'Cardiorespiratory arrest during violent struggle in the setting of an acute combined cocaine and ethanol intoxication.'

"Since this incident, the Chattanooga Police Department has taken several measures to reduce risks from engagements between police officers and people presenting behavior similar to that of Mr. Prater on Jan. 2, 2004.

"First, all operational officers have been issued electronic weapons (Taser). At the time of this incident, only sergeants were issued the electronic weapons. While it is a matter of speculation, if electronic weapons had been available to the initial officers on the night of this incident, perhaps there could have been a different outcome.

"Second, the Department has begun year-round police officer training on low frequency/high impact issues such as Positional Asphyxia and Excited Delirium. The Department continues its efforts to obtain the finest training available for its officers.

"On Dec. 13, 2004, Loretta Prater, as Natural Mother and Administratrix of the Estate of Leslie Vaughn Prater, Dwight Prater, as father of Leslie Prater, and Stefan Prater, as brother of Leslie Prater filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee against the City of Chattanooga and seventeen police officers alleging various claims arising from the death of Mr. Prater on Jan. 2, 2004. Included in the officers named as defendants were a number of officers who were part of the major crimes unit or who assisted in the investigation of this incident and an officer who conducted the Internal Affairs investigation into the incident.

"Without any party admitting any fault or liability, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and the City have reached a settlement dismissing all seventeen defendant officers and the City of Chattanooga.

"Pursuant to this settlement the city will (1) pay the plaintiffs $1,500,000.00; (2) have an independent expert conduct an audit of the Police Department’s Office of Internal Affairs regarding existing and recommended policies and procedures for Internal Affairs investigations; and (3) consult with an independent expert regarding existing and recommended policies and procedures for current training on positional asphyxia and related topics. In addition the settlement will allow, Loretta Prater, a college professor, to create a video explaining the loss of her son which will be shown to new recruits in several upcoming training academies or Ms. Prater will personally appear for a training session during the next three upcoming training academies for new police officers.

"While the administration of the Police Department has full confidence in its Office of Internal Affairs and in its Training Division, the administration welcomes the audit of the Office of Internal Affairs and the consultation with an independent expert regarding existing and recommended policies and procedures for training on positional asphyxia since they can only serve to improve the Police Department.

"The events of Jan. 2, 2004 were obviously a tragedy for Mr. Prater’s family resulting in the death of Mr. Prater. Those same events were also a tragedy for the police officers involved and sued as well as their families. In the dynamic world of law enforcement, police officers must often make split-second decisions in tense, rapidly evolving situations. Unfortunately, not all confrontations in which police officers are involved have safe endings. It is never the goal or desire of any police officer to cause or contribute to cause the death of any person such as Mr. Prater, on the night of January 2, 2004. The primary reason for taking the naked Mr. Prater into police custody on that cold night was to protect him from hurting himself or others.

"Mr. Prater’s regrettable death was certainly an unanticipated and unintentional consequence of trying to help him when officers were dispatched and requested medical assistance during this call. The Department remains committed to managing risks and improving safety for citizens and for its officers as they perform very difficult jobs."

Members of the Prater family were due to take part in a press conference at the office of attorney John Wolfe at the Flatiron Building at 3 p.m.


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