A California man with schizophrenia sustained severe second- and third-degree burns after police pinned him down, shirtless, on blistering hot pavement on the afternoon of Friday, June 23.
Citrus Heights Police responded to multiple calls about a man, James Bradford Nelson III, 28, behaving erratically at a local KFC, reportedly threatening customers and employers, as well as trying to break into vehicles in the parking lot after exiting the business.
Security footage, issued as part of a Citrus Heights Police press release, shows the man acting aggressively inside the restaurant, at one point jumping the counter and going after employees:
“Based on Mr. Nelson’s erratic and irrational behavior, officers attempted to detain him in handcuffs,” the Citrus Heights PD said in its press release. “Mr. Nelson resisted officers’ efforts and became combative. Mr. Nelson was taken to the ground in the parking lot where he continued to resist.”
Nelson was eventually subdued with a “soft restraint device,” the press release continues, but during the struggle sustained severe burns to his face, torso and buttocks due to the scuffle on the hot asphalt, which police say lasted about five minutes.
The man was taken to a hospital to treat his injuries and released from police custody after the incident, but remains in the UC Davis Medical Center burn unit with life-threatening injuries. He has undergone three skin grafting operations and may need further surgery, which could mean several more weeks in the hospital.
On the afternoon of June 23, the temperature in the Sacramento area was around 100 degrees. According to estimates from the National Weather Service, the pavement Nelson was held on would have reached nearly 170 degrees, while human skin is “instantly destroyed” at around 162 degrees.
On Monday, Nelson, heavily sedated by pain medication in his hospital bed, told the Sacramento Bee he could not recall his interactions with police on the day of the struggle, only that he got into a minor car accident earlier in the day and tried to find his way home.
Nelson’s mother, Tarsha Benigno, said the police “tortured” her son.
“He had a schizophrenic episode, and now he’s fighting for his life,” Benigno said. “Even a dog doesn’t deserve to be treated like this.” She said Nelson was diagnosed with the illness in his teens, and described how it has negatively affected his life.
“He’s been caught up in a vicious cycle, in and out of the system,” Benigno said. “It’s terrible to worry every day about your child causing trouble because he is mentally ill.”
In the last decade, Nelson has been charged with attempted robbery, a felony, as well as burglary, larceny, misdemeanor drug possession, among other offenses.
Police learned afterward that Nelson also assaulted and tried to take the wallet of the KFC manager, adding attempted robbery to charges that include being under the influence of a controlled substance, parole violation and resisting arrest, according to the Citrus Heights PD.
The Citrus Heights police have launched internal investigation into the incident, and say Nelson will be charged upon his release from the hospital.
The case highlights deficiencies in police training, which often leaves officers ill-equipped to handle people with mental illness. Last summer, another incident with a severely mentally handicapped man ended in bloodshed when a Miami officer shot at a disabled man, Arnaldo Rios. The officer missed Rios, despite firing from a short range with a rifle (perhaps marksmanship is another aspect of police training that needs improvement…), and hit the man’s therapist, who was on the scene attempting to offer help.