Jennell Black heard a commotion…Outside her door, four men were holding her 19-year-old son face down, pinning his shoulder, legs and arms. One of them, who turned out to be an off-duty police chief from a nearby town, was lying on top of him….
An autopsy report released four months later blamed Mr. Black’s death on congenital heart abnormalities. It classified the death as an accident and said there was no evidence that the police officers’ actions had played a role….
In the end…the deputy medical examiner’s report focused on abnormalities that were statistically very unlikely to have caused a 19-year-old man’s heart to stop.
“He has not examined the probable, and he has latched onto the highly improbable,” Dr. Freeman said. “This is a report that’s designed to exculpate the cops….”
One of the most contentious issues in American policing today: unarmed people who die after being restrained.
The debate, playing out in autopsy rooms, courthouses and police training sessions across the country, hinges on a body of research, conducted primarily by a small group of doctors in San Diego over the last three decades, that concludes that prone restraint is safe…. and that deaths…are caused by factors that have nothing to do with police tactics….
The research, which began as a defense for four California sheriff’s deputies involved in a fatal encounter, has easily dominated the peer-reviewed literature on this niche topic. It is widely cited by medical examiners, including Dr. David R. Fowler, who signed off on the autopsy of Mr. Black. It has been used to defend the police in scores of cases across the country, including in the deaths of Mr. Floyd in Minneapolis, Daniel Prude in Rochester…
“They did a service to medical knowledge by publishing these studies,” said Dr. Judy Melinek, a prominent American forensic pathologist practicing in New Zealand. “But the conclusions that they reached in their papers, and that they continue to advocate for in their testimony, are a lot more far-reaching than the data that they collected can support.”
The research, which began as a defense for four California sheriff’s deputies involved in a fatal encounter, has easily dominated the peer-reviewed literature on this niche topic. It is widely cited by medical examiners…
Some critics of the restraint research had hoped its influence would crater after this year’s murder trial of Derek Chauvin in the death of Mr. Floyd. Mr. Chauvin’s lawyers tried to use the research to bolster their defense, but the prosecution’s star expert witness dismissed it as “highly misleading….”
Many departments still teach officers that prone restraint is dangerous and should be used only sparingly. But the San Diego research over the years has trickled into police training, and one law enforcement news website calls restraint asphyxia a “myth…”