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Firefighter’s death after arrest raises questions

As a Buffalo firefighter, Kristian Woods helped deliver a baby girl and rescue someone from a burning home. He also was mentally ill and when off his medicine could turn paranoid and reckless — like he did one spring afternoon in 2012.

In a Walgreens parking lot, he swung open the passenger door of someone else’s car. Sweating through his T-shirt, Woods came face to face with a mother sitting with her 5-year-old twins.

“He had a very scary look in his eyes,” the woman told police.

He clenched the door, demanded her cell phone and said, “I’m coming with you.”

She shifted the Acura into reverse and shook him loose. But Woods hung around the lot to hound other customers.

Kristian Woods in his Buffalo firefighters uniform. (Courtesy of Kristian Woods' family)

When police arrived, Woods couldn’t explain himself. They would later write that he seemed confused by their questions — “stone-faced,” an officer said. They handcuffed their suspect, drove him to the police station and charged him with attempted robbery.

Police in America face numerous options when dealing with someone in the throes of a mental illness. Each has its pros and cons. For Woods, the worst was yet to come.

After 20 hours in the custody of police and then county jailers, he was taken to Erie County Medical Center. He shouted nonsense, struggled with his guards and said he wanted to die.

With his left arm held down, two mood-altering drugs went in. Woods went quiet within seconds, and a code blue was called. His heart had stopped.

Despite efforts to save him, Woods suffered permanent brain damage. He died five months later, in October 2012. The father of three was 40 years old.

The circumstances that led to his death were never revealed publicly. But a civil rights lawsuit nearing trial in federal court blames Tonawanda police and jail personnel in his death. They should have seen, lawyers allege, that Woods was in a psychotic tailspin, not high on drugs as some of the officers assumed. The best option was to bring him to a hospital and book him later, the family’s lawyers say.

The lawyers filed a second claim against ECMC, blaming its staff for his death.

But no one can say for sure why Woods’ heart gave out.

A medical examiner attributed his chief cause of death to “global hypoxia encephalopathy” — a brain starved of oxygen.

Death certificates ask pathologists for more facts by asking: “Due to or as a consequence of ...”

Was it the injections? The prolonged stress of an arrest when Woods’ mind was failing him?

On the death certificate of Kristian Thomas Woods, that line was never filled in.

A tenuous path

Woods was an example of someone who could pursue a career while carrying a mental illness. He graduated from City Honors in 1990 and attended Canisius College for a year and a half.

He played baseball for both schools. In his senior year at City Honors, a News article called him the “offensive stalwart” who helped the team win the Cornell Cup, the trophy given to the city’s high school champion.

The Toronto Blue Jays and the Cincinnati Reds invited him to try out, said his mother, Joanne M. Woods. But her son was not among the select few athletes who get to play ball for a living.

Joanne Woods, mother of the late Buffalo firefighter Kristian Woods, says Tonawanda police treated her like a second-class citizen the day officers arrested her son and she told them he needed to be taken to a hospital for treatment of mental health problems. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

His immediate and extended families were well-represented in the Buffalo Fire Department. Several uncles were career firefighters. So was his father, Philip, who retired after 30 years. His mother was a firefighter then a dispatcher. Their son joined the ranks in 1996. He regularly worked out of the station on Hertel Avenue near Elmwood.

He and a daughter lived with his mother in her Clarence home. The other children lived with their mother.

Woods functioned well with his illness. Or he didn’t. That often depended on whether he reliably took his nightly dose of Risperdal, a drug used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder but which can bring on fatigue, dizziness, weight gain. For long spells, Woods would go without. So the ordeal at the Walgreens was not the first of its kind.

In March 2010, Woods took off through Clarence with his mother’s car. Sheriff’s deputies found him and decided he should go to the psychiatric emergency room at ECMC. He then spent a few days at BryLin Hospital, which offers inpatient mental health care.

Roughly a year later, his parents brought him to ECMC again, but he bolted. He scaled a fence and climbed into a pickup truck left running on a side street. Woods’ mother and father followed as he drove off. They persuaded him to return to the hospital and, later, BryLin. The truck’s owner did not press charges.

On the night of April 30, 2012, two days before his arrest, Joanne Woods saw familiar but unwelcome signs in her son.

“He just started distancing himself again and he just started ..."

When deposed by a group of lawyers, she collected herself and then completed her thought.

“He appeared to be acting strange again."

‘He looked high’

“Mr. Woods was sweating profusely.”

“His speech was illogical.”

“He appeared to be impaired, unknown by what.”

As Tonawanda police wrote in their reports, something was wrong with Kristian Woods on May 2, 2012. They found a marijuana cigarette when they searched his car in the Walgreens lot. But could marijuana alone explain such behavior?

Only one observer, an emergency medical technician whose ambulance happened to be there, at Parker Boulevard and Sheridan Drive, suspected a mental illness at play: “He was definitely in an altered state,” the EMT told police in a statement. “At first I thought that he was either diabetic or he had some mental issues.”

Buffalo firefighter Kristian T. Woods and his son Isaiah. (Courtesy of Kristian Woods' family)

Police called in their own town paramedics to examine Woods. One noted his “altered mental status” but found no physical reason why police could not take him to the station, and that’s what they did. On the way, Woods was swearing at passing cars.

Hearing of the turmoil at Walgreens, Woods’ mother and his sister, Kara, a physician’s assistant, went to the station to tell officers about Woods’ history. Joanne Woods knew he was going without his Risperdal; she had picked up a new supply for him that afternoon. He needed psychiatric attention, the women told police. But they were told Woods was high or intoxicated.

“They just treated us like we were second-class citizens,” Joanne Woods said.

Lt. Francis McNamara was among the high-ranking officers they dealt with.

“He looked high. High and agitated is the way I would describe him,” said McNamara, now a captain, in a deposition. He also said Woods “looked like he was ready to explode.”

‘Kris, do you know who I am?’

Did police have enough information to believe that Woods should be assessed in a psychiatric unit? Consider:

• Police didn’t place him in just any cell. They chose one with a camera watching from overhead.
• They asked a town judge to arraign him in the lock-up because they didn’t know what would happen walking him into a courtroom.
• The judge filled out a form suggesting Woods needed treatment and might not understand the case against him. He ordered a forensic evaluation by the county Department of Mental Health.
• Woods mother and sister told police he needed psychiatric help. In response, police let Woods, through the town’s medics, take one of the Risperdals that Joanne Woods brought to the station. It came from an unopened bottle clearly marked for Woods.
• Another emergency responder, Battalion Chief James Poley, told police something was wrong with their new defendant.

Partly as a professional courtesy, and partly to confirm that Woods was indeed a city firefighter, police called the Buffalo Fire Department to tell them of the arrest. The department sent Poley, who was on duty at the time and was Woods’ uncle.

“He wasn’t himself,” Poley told The Buffalo News. “Whatever he was saying, it didn’t make sense. I was there in my uniform. He was just looking at me, with his head back a little ...

“I said, ‘Kris, do you know who I am?’ "

Woods’ eyes traveled to Poley’s name tag, then to the gold on his uniform.

“You are Battalion Chief Poley, from the Buffalo Fire Department,” Woods responded.

“He never acknowledged that I was his uncle and had known him since he was born.”

Poley, who is now retired, said he told the police: “That’s not the Kris I know.”

Buffalo firefighter Kristian T. Woods and his daughter Mydasia. (Courtesy of Kristian Woods' family)

Dr. Charles Patrick Ewing, a forensic pathologist willing to testify for the Woods family, says in a written opinion that even if police thought the firefighter was drunk or on drugs, “the appropriate course of action" was to take him to an emergency psychiatric facility.

Four hours after his arrest, at around 8 p.m. May 2, two town officers handed Woods over to the Erie County Holding Center. The facility offers a medical and mental health staff. But its performance over the years has drawn numerous lawsuits and a civil rights prosecution by the U.S. Justice Department.

The Justice Department alleged the facility failed to protect inmates and that its health care and mental health care were inadequate. County officials promised to do better and agreed to a slate of improvements. The case was settled just months before Woods reached the jail.

No ‘crisis intervention’

In the decades since states began closing psychiatric centers, the public increasingly turned to police to deal with people appearing delusional, paranoid or simply behaving outside societal norms. How to best respond to those calls is an evolving area of police work.

Many leading police thinktanks consider an approach developed more than three decades ago in Memphis, Tenn., as the best available today. Called “crisis intervention,” it encourages departments to train certain officers in the skills needed to recognize and connect with someone psychotic and coax or cajole them to accept a psychiatric evaluation. Police can also force a person to a hospital if they appear dangerous and won’t go willingly.

More important, officers trained in crisis intervention are to link patients to the right mental health services and check back regularly with them and their families. In many ways, the specialists play the role of social worker and cop.

Erie County in 2012 was a blank slate when it came to crisis intervention teams. “CIT” had not spread west of Rochester. But Cheektowaga’s police chief, seeing a few mentally ill people triggering dozens of calls each, committed his department to the program that year. Within the next few years, more local agencies sent officers to CIT classes organized by Erie County Crisis Services.

The Town of Tonawanda department dived in, too. Today, roughly one of every four Tonawanda patrol officers is trained in CIT, according to Chief Jerome C. Uschold, who was assistant chief in 2012. He said he intends to have all his officers trained.

The change came years after Kristian Woods went into a coma.

“Back then, it’s something we didn’t know anything about,” Uschold said.

From jail to hospital

The State Commission of Correction investigates in-custody deaths in New York, but it did not conduct an inquiry into Woods’ case. The commission was never told of the matter, a spokeswoman said. The circumstances, and the rules in place at the time, did not require the Erie County sheriff’s Jail Management Division to notify the agency. And by the time Woods died he was no longer an inmate. All charges had been dropped.

If the commission had investigated, would it have faulted the Holding Center? As lawyers defending the county argue in court papers filed days ago, a jail sergeant speaking with Woods the morning after his arrival chose not to wait the several days it could take for the county Mental Health Department’s forensic evaluation to unfold. The sergeant quickly referred Woods to a mental health counselor at the jail.

The counselor put the wheels in motion to get Woods to ECMC that day. His manner had made her so uneasy she asked a deputy to stand by while she tried to communicate with him. At one point, Woods pulled something from a pocket — his broken eye glasses. Both officers wondered if he would use the frame’s sharp tip as a weapon. A team was summoned to wrestle it away.

The drive to ECMC began around noon on May 3, roughly 20 hours after the episode at Walgreens. Throughout, Woods was talking nonsense, the jail deputies who transported him said in depositions. Woods repeated that he wanted to die, and the deputies should kill him. He was rocking side to side and made the van sway, too, Deputy John Gavin testified.

Woods was evaluated first in the emergency room then cleared to be evaluated in the psychiatric emergency room a few paces away. The staff planned to eventually place him in a ward upstairs.

But in the psychiatric emergency room, Woods turned from bad to worse. He was pacing and charging at the deputies. They and the ECMC police worked to restrain him onto a gurney. He shouted that he wanted to die. Sweating heavily, he refused to be held down.

A nurse stood by to give two injections as soon as his left arm was held fast. In went a dose of Haldol, an antipsychotic, and Ativan, used to treat anxiety.

Woods went still within seconds.

Then someone asked if he was breathing.

Almost instantly, a nurse was straddling Woods’ chest administering CPR, Gavin testified. The patient was whisked back to the emergency room. More personnel joined the frantic effort to restart his heart.

Woods suffered irreversible brain damage, according to the report by the chief medical examiner at the time, Dr. Dianne R. Vertes. But she never determined the cause behind his “severe agitation" or his “cardiopulmonary arrest.”

Dueling experts

In the middle of October 2012, Woods was disconnected from a feeding tube. He died about a week later, on Oct. 23, 2012.

He had arrived at the jail weighing 251 pounds. The body placed on the autopsy table weighed 140. Woods had lost 44 percent of his body weight.

Buffalo firefighter Kristian Woods and his mother, Joanne. Joanne Woods is suing the Town of Tonawanda and Erie County Medical Center over her son's death in 2012. (Courtesy of Kristian Woods' family)

“He was loving. He was honest. He was a great father, a great son,” Joanne Woods said. “He did not deserve this.”

She believes that with proper psychiatric attention he would have snapped back from the turmoil he displayed in the Walgreens lot, like he did after the episodes in 2010 and 2011.

Each time he returned to his “normal self” while remembering little about what had gone on, she said. “It was very, very strange.”

To this day, she does not know why her son went to Walgreens. Nor can she say what he was doing in the approximately eight hours after his work shift ended and before his arrest.

The lawsuit seeks damages for his children. The family also wants to see changes to police policy on dealing with people showing signs of a mental illness.

“There’s a number of things we’d like to see,” said attorney Randy Mallaber of the HoganWillig law firm, “but right now it’s trying to hold them accountable.”

With the autopsy report inconclusive, both sides turned to their own experts for opinions about the demise of Woods.

“It is my opinion that he required immediate care and treatment in order to prevent his condition from worsening,” Dr. Brian S. Joseph, who at one time was the Holding Center’s chief of psychiatry, wrote in a report for Mallaber.

“If he had been sent to the hospital immediately by the Tonawanda Police or by the staff at the Erie County Holding Center when he was transferred there, it is my opinion that he would not have suffered from the cardiovascular collapse which caused the anoxia which caused his brain damage which caused his death several months later.”

The town enlisted, among others, Brian J. Gould, a Cheektowaga police lieutenant and a catalyst for Cheektowaga’s decision to go with crisis intervention. Gould is one of CIT’s biggest advocates in Erie County and has won praise from the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

To Gould, Tonawanda police acted appropriately.

The most prevalent factor discussed in the premature death of people with serious mental illness is suicide, Gould wrote in an opinion that will frame his testimony should the case go to trial. The town, he said, had Woods checked by one of its medics then monitored him closely during the four hours preceding his transfer to the Holding Center. And in the handoff, jail staff were told the judge wanted a forensic evaluation.

“Drawing the conclusion that Kristian T. Woods’ premature death could have been prevented by transporting him to a hospital sooner is unsupported by the facts,” Gould wrote.

He also said: “The untimely death of Kristian T. Woods is nothing short of tragic.”

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