Update: Attorney General finds no crime in Troy Hodge's death

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Benjamin Joe, Lockport Union-Sun & Journal, N.Y.
·5 min read
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Mar. 20—New York State Attorney General Letitia James released her report on Troy Hodge's death Friday, concluding there is "insufficient evidence to establish that a crime has been committed by any of the responding officers from the Lockport Police Department and the Niagara County Sheriff's Office."

The attorney general's Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit did recommend some policy and procedure changes for LPD and the sheriff's office, including tailoring of LPD's use-of-force policy, providing officer training on signs of medical distress and LPD shutting down its in-house 911 dispatching unit.

"I extend my deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of Troy Hodge," James said in a late Friday statement accompanying her report. "We engaged in an extensive and complete review of the facts in this case and determined that there was not sufficient evidence to prove that a crime had been committed. However, the actions of some of the officers raised serious concerns and should not go unaddressed."

The phrase "should not go unaddressed" was repeated Friday by Hodge family attorney Joseph Morath of Connors LLP.

"We agree with the Attorney General that the actions of the officers should not go unaddressed," Morath said in a statement. "We believe they should have been charged criminally for killing Troy. The conduct of the first two officers to arrive created the circumstances that resulted in the police killing Troy, because they escalated in their use of force unnecessarily and quickly moved to using excessive force when responding to a medical call from Troy's mother. ... we agree that the conduct that killed Troy Hodge is inexcusable and a source of significant concerns."

Four Lockport police officers were on the scene when Hodge died. Three of them were placed on desk duty by incoming Police Chief Steve Abbott after the Office of the Attorney General announced its investigation into Hodge's death, and a fourth officer, Marissa Bonito, was on leave.

It could not be determined late Friday whether the involved officers were or will be released from duty limits now that James' report is out. Both Abbott and Mayor Michelle Roman declined to comment entirely on the report and the officers' status, saying it's a "personnel issue."

The chain of events that led to Hodge's death on June 16, 2019 began after Hodge arrived at the Park Avenue residence of his mother, Fatima Hodge, who called 911 seeking a welfare check on her son because he was behaving erratically.

Upon making contact with Troy Hodge in his mom's driveway, police said the situation quickly escalated. An officer reported that Hodge claimed to have a gun in the house and broke away from their conversation, heading to the residence. At that point the officer said he attempted to detain Hodge, and noticed a knife in Hodge's hand.

According to James' report, Hodge broke away from Officer Daniel Barrancotta, grabbed responding Officer Marissa Bonito, placed her in a headlock and attempted to move the knife towards her head.

The two officers were able to dislodge the knife from Hodge's grip using physical force, but were unable to detain him until additional officers arrived.

Among the backup officers was Niagara County Sheriff's Deputy Joshua Austin, whose body camera captured images of a dying Troy Hodge. OAG released those images publicly this past December.

At one point, the body camera footage shows Bonito placing her foot on Hodge's neck and shoulder and holding it there for one minute and 25 seconds, according to the report. During that time Hodge became mute and motionless.

Bonito told OAG staff that she did not consciously place her foot on Hodge's neck, but on his shoulder, nor did she apply "meaningful pressure." Bonito said her left foot was on a door stop and her right foot was placed on Hodge to keep balance.

James' report said "it is impossible to gauge the accuracy of this statement from the video footage."

Also seen in the body camera footage, when emergency medical personnel arrived on the scene, Hodge was found to have no pulse.

The medical examiner later identified the cause of Hodge's death to be "(s)udden death associated with acute cocaine intoxication and prolonged physical altercation." James' office agreed with the cause of death after a private forensic pathology expert reviewed the autopsy findings.

The report also concluded that OAG "cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the force employed against Mr. Hodge was unreasonable under the circumstances."

OAG took control of a probe started by then Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek days after Hodge's death.

Among the recommendations in the report, OAG encouraged Lockport Police Department to discontinue its in-house 911 dispatch operations and use the Niagara County Central Dispatch center.

In regard to emergency response to the Hodge call, the report noted both dispatch centers were working the calls, and there were several "miscues" including the dispatching of an ambulance near, not at, Fatima Hodge's house, while officers on the scene thought the ambulance was coming to the house. Subsequently, while the officers waited, the ambulance was parked nearby as EMS personnel waited to be told it was safe to enter.

Morath indicated that Hodge's family will continue to search for justice in a civil suit if no changes in Lockport Police Department become apparent.

"We have been demanding reforms in the City of Lockport, and the Attorney General recommends reforms that will help save the next Troy Hodge. They are long overdue," Morath said. "If the city won't change on its own, we will seek justice in a courtroom in Niagara County with a jury of people in the best position to act to bring about the change Lockport deserves."