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A Georgia sheriff said he plans to discipline more police officers and has changed policies in response to the death of a man who was handcuffed to a controversial restraint chair after he allegedly struck his girlfriend and broke a deputy's nose during a bipolar episode.
“The loss of a young life is a tragedy and the sheriff’s office is always deeply concerned when someone dies in custody. That is especially true in this case,” Chatham County Sheriff Al St. Lawrence said in a statement Wednesday.
Mathew Ajibade, 22, was found dead in an isolation cell in January. His family — who tapped high-profile lawyer Mark O’Mara to represent them — claims police used a taser on him while he was restrained in the chair and then left him unattended.
Restraint chairs are designed to subdue out-of-control prisoners without injury, but an investigation by NBC affiliate WTLV last year found more than three dozen deaths have been linked to a variety of the devices since they were introduced in the late '90s. Amnesty International has called for a ban.
After Ajibade’s death, two deputies were suspended without pay pending the outcome of an investigation -- but a group of clergy and community members demanded more answers in a public letter delivered to the sheriff shortly before Wednesday’s announcement.
“Two [deputies] are currently suspended for this incident,” St. Lawrence said in his statement. “I anticipate a complete response later this week that will include all other remaining officers involved.
“Additionally, I have instituted numerous policy changes. Those changes include safeguards for those reported to suffer from a mental health illness as well as security cross checks.”
He declined to comment further, citing an ongoing probe by the Chatham County prosecutor, who said she got the case file two weeks ago and plans to present the matter to a grand jury.
Ajibade’s family said he was having a bipolar episode on New Year’s Day when his girlfriend called 911. When Chatham County cops arrived, they found the girlfriend had been struck and had blood on her cheek, a source said.
According to the clergy’s letter to the sheriff, the girlfriend "told the police about his condition and even gave them his medication…The police promised to take Mathew to the hospital, but instead they arrested him and took him to Chatham County Detention Center.”
Once there, Ajibade "resisted and began to fight with deputies," the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said in a statement in January. "Force was used to restrain Ajibade. Deputies were injured during the altercation. Ajibade was confined to a restraint chair and, subsequently, found unresponsive by deputies."
The sheriff's office initially said a female sergeant suffered a concussion and broken nose, and two male deputies suffered minor injuries in the confrontation and that Ajibade was put in an isolation cell because of “his dangerous behavior.”
O'Mara — best known for defending George Zimmerman in the shooting death of an unarmed teen — says that at the time of his death, Ajibade was working two jobs and taking college classes.
He said the suspension of the deputies was "an important first step in suspending two officers who interacted with Mathew Ajibade the night of his death, but it is only a first step."
"A young man is dead, and he shouldn't be," he added. "The family deserves to know why as soon as possible.”