SIU Concludes Investigation into Custody Death Involving Niagara Regional Police
Case Number: 07-OCD-145
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The SIU investigation determined that on July 23, 2007, Mr. Rotolo left his Oakville home and made his way to Niagara Falls where he checked into a motel. On July 25 at approximately 5:30 a.m., Mr. Rotolo placed two distress calls to 9-1-1 from his cell phone indicating that he was "in trouble across from the Old Casino" before hanging up. He believed that unknown persons were chasing him. The 9-1-1 operator called him back but he did not answer. Independent evidence gathered by the SIU showed that, indeed, no one was chasing him.
Niagara Regional Police officers located Mr. Rotolo at the intersection of Bender Street and Ontario Avenue and noticed that he appeared to be very agitated and sweating profusely." Civilian witnesses also describe Mr. Rotolo around this time as "hyperventilating, screaming, running around in circles and making incomprehensible sounds". The officers' attempts at coherent communication were unsuccessful and they called for backup and paramedics.
"I am satisfied that the officers had lawful grounds to arrest Mr. Rotolo in the circumstances," noted Mr. Cornish. Mr. Rotolo was exhibiting symptoms of what appeared to be cocaine intoxication, paranoia, confusion, hyperactivity and intense perspiration, and was acting inn a bizarre manner. It was decided that he should be arrested under the Mental Health Act for his own protection and the protection of others."
There ensued a violent struggle with a total of six officers attempting to subdue the 5' 11", 313-pound man. During the event, Mr. Rotolo broke away and jumped from a parking lot retaining wall, falling approximately six feet onto the parking lot and striking his head and face on the pavement. There the struggle continued and the officers were initially unsuccessful in gaining control over Mr. Rotolo. There was no Taser available at the scene and, although a request was made for one to be brought to the scene, none arrived before Mr. Rotolo was brought under control.
Officers used physical force including their batons on his limbs to control Mr. Rotolo who, as Mr. Cornish noted, "...was able to shake off the combined weight of four officers on his back, including one officer who was 6'4" and 245 pounds. This was a clear indication the first indication of the incredible strength and power Mr. Rotolo exhibited during the intense physical struggle with the police."
After a prolonged struggle, officers managed to restrain Mr. Rotolo's hands behind his back using three sets of handcuffs - one on each wrist and a third to bind them together. Aware of the risks associated with positional/restraint asphyxia and excited delirium, the
officers placed Mr. Rotolo in a seated position to avoid pressure on his chest and to ease his laboured breathing. However, although handcuffed, Mr. Rotolo continued to swing his arms and legs and was spitting blood in the direction in the direction of the officers, prompting them to place him on his side and in a prone position for periods of time.
In a further effort to subdue Mr. Rotolo, one officer directed a short burst of pepper spray at him during this time, but it had no effect. Indeed, it is unclear as to whether or not that burst of pepper spray contacted Mr. Rotolo at all. Arriving paramedics were unable to treat Mr. Rotolo because of his continued resistance, so they administered a sedative to calm him. Shortly after that, Mr. Rotolo lost vital signs. Despite efforts at resuscitation and life-saving attempts in the ambulance while enroute to hospital, Mr. Rotolo was pronounced dead shortly after his arrival.
The post-mortem found that Mr. Rotolo had potentially lethal levels of an illegal substance in his blood and died as a result of toxic effects associated to that drug. There were multiple superficial blunt force injuries consisting of bruises and scrapes, but none were determined to be factors in the cause of death.
"In my view, there are no reasonable grounds to believe that the force described by the subject officers, consisting of baton, elbow and knee strikes to Mr. Rotolo's arms, legs and torso, together with the sheer bodily force they expended while grappling with Mr. Rotolo in the parking lot, was more than was necessary to control and arrest him," concluded Mr. Cornish. "It is clear on the evidence that Mr. Rotolo exhibited phenomenal strength in resisting the officers' efforts to take him into custody. The mere fact that it took six officers to finally handcuff Mr. Rotolo's hands behind his back, and then only by linking three sets of handcuffs together, is testament to the physical challenge that confronted the officers. I am satisfied in the circumstances that the force described by the officers was reasonable."
With regard to the medical threat posed by positional and restraint asphyxia, Mr. Cornish said: "The officers were alive to those risks and took measures to mitigate that danger by placing Mr. Rotolo on his side and in a seated position while they waited for the ambulance to arrive. Regrettably, because of his continued resistance on the ground, they also had to keep Mr. Rotolo in a prone position for periods of time. I can find no fault with the officers' course of conduct in this regard. It was not unreasonable for them to do as they did in the face of Mr. Rotolo's continued resistance."
Six SIU field investigators and three forensic investigators were assigned to this case. Six subject officers and nine witness officers were designated and interviewed as well as three members of the Niagara Regional Emergency Medical Services and 20 civilian witnesses. Investigators also assessed the Niagara Regional Police communication tape, the 9-1-1-call tape, occurrence reports, computer-aided dispatch reports and scene photographs and logs. The completion and review of expert reports in the fields of forensics and police use of force were important aspects of this investigation and also bore on the length of the investigation.
During the course of the SIU investigation, the lead investigator was available and maintained contact with the family. The family was also offered the support services of the SIU's Affected Persons Co-ordinator.
The SIU is an arm’s length agency that investigates reports involving police where there has been death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault. Under the Police Services Act, the Director of the SIU must
- consider whether an officer has committed a criminal offence in connection with the incident under investigation
- depending on the evidence, lay a criminal charge against the officer if appropriate or close the file without any charges being laid
- report the results of any investigations to the Attorney General.