Schenectady, NY – A Schenectady police officer has been cleared of any wrongdoing in the 2017 death of Andrew Kearse, who suffered cardiac arrhythmia in the back of a patrol vehicle after fleeing from police.
Kearse, a 36-year-old father of nine, was on parole on May 11, 2017, when he fled from a police sergeant during a traffic stop, the Albany Times Union reported.
After a half-mile pursuit, Kearse stopped at a friend’s residence, where he was located by the sergeant.
When the sergeant pulled up at the home, Kearse initially told him he had not been driving the vehicle involved in the pursuit.
The sergeant told Kearse to remain where he was while he went to look at his dashcam from the chase, at which point the suspect fled into his friend’s house.
Officers chased Kearse through the backyard and across several other properties before he was apprehended.
During his arrest, he fought with the officers until he was ultimately secured in handcuffs, then refused to stand up or walk.
Kearse told the officers, including Schenectady Officer Mark Weekes, that he needed to breathe and was unable to walk, so they carried him to Officer Weekes’ patrol vehicle.
"You can't outrun the police, man. We're too fast for you," Officer Weekes told Kearse as they drove back to Kearse’s friend’s home, according to the Albany Times Union.
When they arrived, Officer Weekes spoke with other officers at the scene for approximately seven minutes.
During that time, Kearse yelled out to the officers 17 times, and told them he couldn’t breathe and to roll down the window.
Officer Weekes opened the driver’s door three times, but refused to roll down a window in the air-conditioned car.
“Is it hot? Probably shouldn’t run next time,” he told Kearse. “Slow down your breathing. Take deep breaths. You’ll be fine.”
Officer Weekes, a 10-year veteran of the force, is also an Air Force veteran who served in Afghanistan and participated in over 300 combat missions.
During the investigation, he explained that through his training, he learned that “if someone can speak, they can breathe,” Attorney General Barbara Underwood said in her report, according to the Albany Times Union.
The officer said he suspected that Kearse’s request to open the window was nothing more than a ruse for him to make another escape attempt.
As Officer Weekes drove Kearse to the police station, Kearse continued to yell out that he was dizzy and couldn’t breathe, and eventually slumped into the seat.
When the patrol vehicle reached the station, Kearse was unresponsive and officers removed him from the car and placed him on the sidewalk.
They began administering CPR, and used a defibrillator in an unsuccessful attempt to resuscitate him.
He was subsequently rushed to Ellis Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7:47 p.m.
Kearse’s cause of death was determined to be cardiac arrhythmia.
Connecticut cardiologist Stuart Zarich said the instance was a “very unusual case of sudden cardiac death,” and that without the proper tools, “even he would not have recognized from observation alone that Mr. Kearse required advanced cardiac life support measures,” Underwood’s report read, according to the Albany Times Union.
On Friday, Underwood announced that the grand jury declined to file charges against Officer Weekes, despite the urging from her office, The Daily Gazette reported.
"After an exhaustive investigation…we concluded that there was sufficient evidence that a crime had been committed to warrant a presentation to a grand jury," Underwood said. "The grand jury, however, declined charges. We are prohibited by law from discussing what occurred in the grand jury."
"Regardless of the grand jury’s decision, Mr. Kearse’s death was a tragedy that never should have happened, and reforms must be made to prevent similar future tragedies," she continued. "To that end, we are urging crucial reforms to how police departments across the state handle medical emergencies."
Underwood then recommended that the state Legislature "immediately act to ensure a uniform statewide policy" to require law enforcement officers to treat purported breathing difficulties as medical emergencies.
"I want to be clear: A complaint about breathing difficulties should not be dismissed because the arrestee is able to talk," she said.
Underwood said that her “heart is with” Kearse’s family, and called his death “a terrible tragedy.”
"This should serve as a clarion call for the Legislature and police departments across the state to make systemic reforms to how medical emergencies like this are handled – so that no other family has to experience what Mr. Kearse’s has gone through,” she said.
Officer Weekes voluntarily went onto unpaid leave during the summer after it was announced that the case would go before the grand jury, his attorney, Andrew Sanfranko told The Daily Gazette.
"My general thoughts are obviously that we are very happy with the result of the grand jury,” Sanfranko said. “They fully and completely exonerated Officer Weekes of any wrongdoing.”
“[The grand jury] supported the complete, thorough and independent investigation performed by the New York State Police, which concurred the same thing: Officer Weekes did not commit any crime,” he said.
Kearse’s family has filed a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city, the Albany Times Union reported.