Death Draws Attention To Police Putting Suspects Face Down
It’s common practice for police around the U.S. to place combative suspects face down and press down on their backs with hands, elbows or knees to gain control.
They aren’t supposed to do it for an “extended period" because that can lead to injuries or death. But what length of time is appropriate?
That question and the face-down method are in the spotlight after police video released last week showed officers in Northern California struggling with a man for more than five minutes as he lay face down.
He died. Two days after the video became public, a jury in Southern California awarded more than $2 million to the family of a homeless man who died in 2018 after officers in Anaheim used a similar technique to restrain him.
Now, a Los Angeles-area lawmaker who is a former police officer is trying to outlaw techniques that create a substantial risk of what's known as “positional asphyxia" — legislation police oppose as either vague or unnecessary given that most departments already restrict the practice.
“This does not mean that a police officer can no longer restrain anyone when they need to for public safety, but it would mean that they cannot keep anyone from breathing/losing oxygen when restraining them,” Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gipson said in a statement.
He cited George Floyd's death in Minneapolis last year, who was face down as an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and another California death before Christmas involving police in the San Francisco Bay Area community of Antioch.
The legislation is getting more attention after 26-year-old Mario Gonzalez died on April 19. Body camera video released last week showed he was pinned down by four Alameda Police Department employees. Officers confronted him after receiving 911 calls that he seemed disoriented or drunk and appeared to be breaking the security tags off bottles of alcohol he had in shopping baskets.
The department's policy manual says a suspect “shall not be placed on his/her stomach for an extended period, as this could reduce the person’s ability to breathe.”
“Every department has policies on this,” said Ed Obayashi, a use-of-force consultant to law enforcement agencies and a deputy sheriff and legal adviser for the Plumas County, California, sheriff’s office. “Every law enforcement agency trains their officers, advises them, cautions them on this very restraint issue — positional asphyxia.”
Timothy T. Williams Jr., a police tactics expert who spent nearly 30 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, said the policy should be clearer.
“The policy needs to be more specific and directed: Once he or she is handcuffed, they are to be immediately removed from the prone position, put on their side and if possible set up,” Williams said. Otherwise, “you leave everything to subjective interpretation: What may be short to you may be long to me."
That's not new: A 1995 bulletin from the U.S. Department of Justice advised agencies that “as soon as the suspect is handcuffed, get him off his stomach.”
Williams and Obayashi agree that the officers in Alameda should have known that they needed to get Gonzalez onto his side more quickly. In fact, the video captures an officer suggesting they do so about 15 seconds before Gonzalez loses consciousness. Another officer refused, apparently fearing he would lose his grip.
The video shows one officer putting an elbow on Gonzalez's neck and a knee on his shoulder, while another appears to put a knee on his back and leaves it there for about four minutes, even as Gonzalez gasps for air. Officers handcuffed him about two minutes after they pinned him to the ground but didn’t turn him on his back until three minutes later, when he had lost consciousness.
From a medical standpoint, any restriction of oxygen or blood flow is too long, said University of California, San Francisco, neurologist Nicole Rosendale.
“There are no kind of safe, defined ways to have someone in a position like this and reduce oxygen,” she said. “There’s no way to predict who might be at higher risk or lower risk of complications from this positioning.”
That's the premise of the proposed California ban, which would outlaw applying pressure or body weight to a restrained person’s neck, torso or back or laying them face up or face down without proper monitoring.
The California State Sheriffs’ Association said the language is too broad, violations would be too difficult to judge and a ban would leave officers fewer options against violent suspects and more likely to use batons or stun guns.
The National Conference of State Legislatures said Nevada enacted a similar ban last year as part of broader legislation.
After Floyd's death, California last year barred police from using arm-based grips, including chokeholds that apply pressure to a person’s windpipe and carotid holds that slow the flow of blood to the brain.
It was similarly once common to hog-tie, or hobble, combative suspects by binding their ankles to their wrists behind their backs, though the Los Angeles and New York police departments were among those that abandoned that practice nearly a quarter-century ago after it was blamed for too many deaths.
An attorney for the Alameda officers, Alison Berry Wilkinson, said they “used the lowest degree of force possible given the intensity of Mr. Gonzalez’s efforts to evade their grasp.” She said officers never pressed down hard enough to stop his breathing.
Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer and professor of police studies at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the body camera footage of Gonzalez's arrest “is a training video for anybody who’s reasonably fair to see how hard it is if a situation becomes physical.”
“What you have now in many police departments is prohibitions that make physical arrests very hard — avoiding the chest, avoiding putting somebody on their stomach, avoiding their neck," O’Donnell said. "And there’s always the possibility somebody can die in an arrest situation.”