The death of 50-year-old Michael Marshall, a homeless man who had been jailed for trespassing has now been linked to police using this common, but risky procedure, on him in an attempt to subdue him while he was experiencing difficulties.
The Huffington Post reports that the 112-pound man was subdued face-down on his stomach, with six deputies holding him to the floor, while he was an inmate in Denver, Colorado. He allegedly choked on his own vomit and suffocated as the Denver sheriff’s deputies held him down during a psychotic episode.
After surveillance footage was released on Friday by Denver officials, of the homeless man who the medical examiner said died of “complications of positional asphyxia,” it was announced that criminal charges against the six deputies would not be filed. Claiming that multiple factors, including lung and heart disease, contributed to Marshall’s death, District Attorney, Mitch Morrissey, said the use of force by deputies was necessary to restrain him at the time.
However, Marshall’s niece, Natalia Marshall, doesn’t believe it needed six deputies to restrain him, considering he was only a homeless man who was accused of trespassing.
“He didn’t try to hurt anyone. He wasn’t threatening,” Natalia said. “And for them to forcefully restrain him the way they did and brutally murder him just because of the fact that he was trespassing? Is beyond my thoughts,” she added.
The case has renewed efforts against police tactics in the restraining of someone in a prone position, especially in light of previous deaths attributed to similar measures used on people with mental or other medical issues. Experts believe that oftentimes people suffering from these conditions could be confused with resisting police, instead of simply being in a state of distress.
Marvin Booker, a homeless street preacher died in a similar fashion to Marshall after he was Tasered, handcuffed, put in a sleeper hold and had deputies lay on top of him during an incident in Denver in 2010. Booker died of “cardiorespiratory arrest during restraint,” according to the medical examiner and brought calls for a federal investigation into police methods of restraint.
The Department of Justice wrote in a 1995 bulletin, warning police officers about the dangers of “positional asphyxia,” or placing someone in such a position that it complicates their ability to breathe, which could result in their death. The DOJ recommended that “As soon as a suspect is handcuffed, get him off his stomach.”
Other cases which some have claimed resulted in the unnecessary deaths of suspects include: Robert Ethan Saylor, who died after a struggle with deputies in a Maryland movie theatre; Tanisha Anderson, who was held on her stomach when she tried to escape from the back seat of a police patrol car in Cleveland; and Robert Minjarez, who cried out that he couldn’t breathe while being held down by Louisiana police officers.
While Minjarez was a cocaine user, both Saylor and Anderson suffered with mental incapacity. The former was an overweight man with Down syndrome and the latter was mentally ill.
After the New York City incident in 2014 of Eric Garner, who died when officers restrained him during an arrest for a minor offense, it drew national protests of the use of the unnecessary use of police force and the killings of unarmed black men. Garner was held face down while an officer placed a chokehold on him.
Listing the cause being partly due to the chokehold placed upon him, the medical examiner also cited “prone positioning during physical restraint” as a cause of Garner’s subsequent death.
However, Harvey Hedden, executive director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association, appears to believe that the deaths of suspects while being restrained are more often than not their own fault.
“When the maneuver turns deadly, it’s often because a suspect is disobeying commands or resisting, which can cause officers to apply even more pressure,” said Hedden. “In cases where people comply, there are other options,” he added.
Officer David Wright, the Pittsburg Police Department’s use-of-force instructor, said that when the practice of restraining a suspect while being handcuffed is used correctly, it is a safe and effective method of gaining control. “The longer the struggle plays out, the greater the concern,” said Wright, who trains officers to control a person’s limbs rather than putting weight on their back.