When 'Nonlethal' Police Tactics Result in Deaths

The AP finds 1K cases across the US over a decade
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Mar 30, 2024 4:52 PM CDT
When 'Nonlethal' Police Tactics Result in Deaths
This combination of photos shows, top row from left: Anthony Timpa, Austin Hunter Turner, Carl Grant, Damien Alvarado, Delbert McNiel, and Demetrio Jackson. Second row from left: Drew Edwards, Evan Terhune, Giovani Berne, Glenn Ybanez, Ivan Gutzalenko, and Mario Clark. Bottom row from left: Michael...   (AP Photo)

Every day, police rely on common tactics that, unlike guns, are meant to stop people without killing them, such as physical holds, Tasers, and body blows. But when misused, these tactics can still end in death—as happened with George Floyd in 2020, sparking a national reckoning over policing. And while that encounter was caught on video, many others throughout the United States have escaped notice:

  • Over a decade, more than 1,000 people died after police subdued them through means not intended to be lethal, an investigation led by the AP found. In hundreds of cases, officers weren't taught or didn't follow best safety practices for physical force and weapons, creating a recipe for death.

  • These sorts of deadly encounters happened just about everywhere, according to an analysis of a database AP created. Big cities, suburbs, and rural America. Red states and blue states. Restaurants, assisted living centers and, most commonly, in or near the homes of those who died.
  • The toll disproportionately fell on Black Americans, who made up a third of those who died, despite representing only 12% of the US population. Others feeling the brunt were impaired by a medical, mental health, or drug emergency, a group particularly susceptible to force even when lightly applied.
  • In about 30% of the cases, police were intervening to stop people who were injuring others or who posed a threat of danger. But roughly 25% of those who died weren't harming anyone or, at most, were committing low-level infractions or causing minor disturbances. The rest involved other nonviolent situations with people who, police said, were trying to resist arrest or flee.
  • AP's three-year investigation was done in collaboration with the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism programs at the University of Maryland and Arizona State University, and Frontline (PBS). Reporters filed nearly 7,000 requests for government documents and body-camera footage, receiving more than 700 autopsy reports or death certificates. Medical officials cited law enforcement as causing or contributing to about half of the deaths.
  • In hundreds of cases, officers repeated errors that experts and trainers have spent years trying to eliminate—perhaps none more prevalent than how they held someone face down in what's known as prone restraint. In dozens of cases, officers disregarded people who told them they were struggling for air or even about to die, often uttering the words, "I can't breathe."
  • Video in a few dozen cases showed some officers mocked people as they died, laughing or making comments such as "sweaty little hog," "screaming like a little girl," and "lazy f---." In other cases, officers expressed clear concern for the people they were subduing.
(Read the full story, which has individual examples and explores the challenges of holding officers accountable.)

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