Selective facts in the NPD version of John Kohn’s death

The reports that came out Friday about what happened to Norfolk police recruit John Kohn, a shipmate of mine aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt many years ago, show the Norfolk Police Department did not tell the whole story of the events that apparently led to John’s death.

Mike Mather’s reporting for WTKR shows John was punched by an instructor during a self-defense exercise. According to Mather, this is several minutes after the collision between John and another recruit. The collision was what the PD initially said preceded “the officer’s distress.” Mather reported:

On Dec. 18, John Kohn, a husband, a father to be, and a rock and roll drummer, died. Yet police did not reveal all the circumstances. Chief Marquis consulted with the city attorney, and according to documents obtained by NewsChannel 3, they decided the chief would: ‘reiterate that the event before the officer’s distress was an accidental collision.’

As you can see from the video released today, that’s simply not true.

Does hitting police recruit John Kohn’s head until he’s non-responsive and then letting the police chief effectively lie for weeks about injuries that may have led or at least contributed to this death make anyone in Norfolk safer? Or make any of the recruits who survive their classmate better cops?

Here’s the video of the collision, which apparently was what the PD initially released. As Patrick Wilson of The Virginian-Pilot reported:

The incident was a full 11 minutes after a collision with another recruit that the police chief initially blamed for his hospitalization.

Compare it what is on the video Mather obtained, and what the police chief said last month:

I am taking this opportunity to reiterate the sympathy of the Norfolk Police Department in the death of Recruit John Kohn.  As you are aware, the department is continuing an industrial accident investigation as is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Be reminded that this is not a criminal investigation.  What we do know is that two recruits accidentally collided while moving through the doors of the training area on December 9, 2010 during defensive tactics training.  At the time of the collision, both recruits were wearing full head and hand protection issued by the Department for purposes of the defensive tactics training.  Soon after the collision, Recruit Kohn exhibited signs of distress and was transported to the hospital by Norfolk Fire-Rescue.  Recruit Kohn was admitted to the hospital and subsequently died on December 18, 2010.

We are advised that on Monday, December 20, the Office of the State Medical Examiner conducted a preliminary autopsy and will conduct more comprehensive tests in the near future.  The results of these examinations may yield information concerning the cause of death.  The Norfolk Police Department will not be the source of information for any autopsy results or on the cause of death.  The Office of the State Medical Examiner will determine the release of the autopsy and examination results.

The department will review the information that is made available from these investigations to determine any lessons to be learned.

The chief told The Pilot he did not know about the punches when he made the initial statement. However, by relaying such selective facts initially, and then even for weeks following the statement, the department effectively lied about the events that led to John’s death when the organization had additional information. I’m not sure what anyone who let this happen was thinking.

A clarification after the initial post:

I’ve edited the initial post, particularly the last paragraph and some early language, because I’m told the city complied with the specific requests of at least one media organization in turning over video of John’s training, though that meant only the collision was released. Also, I don’t know how to characterize John’s condition after he was struck. Mather’s story uses “unconscious” and “unconsciousness”, but I’m not sure about that language from what I can see in the video and don’t want to characterize it that way. Additionally, I can’t characterize the training itself (I have not sought to do so). My concern, generally, has been the PD response.

I did not write that the city had not responded to requests, but that they had withheld information (two other incidents involving John, one before and one after the collision) for some time. Precisely how long, and for what reasons, would be nice to know. If officers or recruits discussed the punches with detectives on Dec. 9, as records cited by The Pilot‘s Wilson on Friday indicate, how is it that this information was withheld from the public (and apparently city leaders) for a month?

Additionally, this is from Wilson and Harry Minium’s story today:

(Chief Bruce) Marquis insisted Friday that he did not know about the punches to the head when he spoke to Williams in late December. ‘I was told that Recruit Kohn continued with the exercises, and during the exercises (his unresponsiveness) was noticed by the instructor,’ he said. ‘They advised me that he continued an exercise which involved ground fighting – not specifically that the ground fighting included him getting punched in the head.’

Marquis said he recently became aware of the punches to Kohn’s head but had been advised by the city attorney’s office not to discuss the information. ‘I don’t recall when I learned about the punches,’ he said. ‘The whole punches to the head part of it, as far as my knowledge base, is a recent phenomenon.’

Documents released by the city attorney’s office on Thursday show that Marquis’ top aides were discussing that training instructor Leldon Sapp struck Kohn – the day after the chief released his statement that made no mention of blows.

Sharon Chamberlin, senior assistant chief of police, e-mailed Capt. Paul Galligan: ‘One question will be asked – where was Kohn struck by Sapp?’

‘In the head,’ Galligan replied.

When asked whether he believed his command staff should have informed him of that sooner, Marquis said of Chamberlin: ‘Maybe she should have stressed it more so I could be a little more coherent about that incident and what took place.’


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