By Seth Richardson
In 2002, Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers arrested a Denver man at the scene of an accident, and then killed him by kneeling on his back as he lay handcuffed and hobbled on the ground. Bruce James Weigel was negligently killed by police using an increasingly common tactic they use to deal with obstreperous and unruly arrestees: police wrestle them down, handcuff them, tie their feet together, and then administer a little “street justice” to struggling citizens by kneeling on their backs or necks, ostensibly to keep them under control. The more the face-down suspect struggles, the more pressure and weight the police put on him.
But too often such brutal tactics on persons already adequately restrained result in permanent injuries and with alarming and increasing frequency, death, as in Weigel’s case. Such asphyxiation deaths are not at all uncommon, either in hospitals, care facilities for the mentally disabled, and when people are in police custody.
A 2008 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal discussing the notorious case of a Polish immigrant, Robert Dziekanski, who was tasered and then asphyxiated to death in 2007 at Vancouver’s airport, cited a 1998 study of 21 deaths associated with “excited delirium” and positional asphyxia, claims that the study found that 18 of 21 cases “were people in police custody” who all “suddenly lapsed into tranquility shortly after being restrained. In all 21 cases, the victims had been restrained either face-down or through pressure applied to their necks… In 8 cases, the victims suffered chest compression from the weight of 1–5 people.”
The article cites the conclusion of the study as saying that ‘”the possibility that positional asphyxia contributes to unexpected death in people in states of excited delirium cannot be ignored.” Those suffering from excited delirium were in need of more than the usual amount of oxygen, yet the techniques used to restrain them could restrict their ability to breathe.”
In Weigel’s case, the autopsy found that the cause of death was explicitly “mechanical asphyxiation” and after a lawsuit by his family that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court found that troopers John K. Broad and Devan Henderson unlawfully killed Weigel by using excessive force in restraining him after they had arrested, handcuffed and hobbled him and had him lying face-down on the ground.
The U.S. District Court originally ruled that governmental immunity covered the troopers because the state alleged trooper’s conduct was not unreasonable under existing law. But the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling in 2008, saying “…[T]he law was clearly established that applying pressure to Mr. Weigel’s upper back once he was handcuffed and his legs restrained, was constitutionally unreasonable due to the significant risk of positional asphyxiation associated with such actions.” The Supreme Court refused to hear Wyoming’s appeal, so the Circuit Court’s decision stands.
And that’s a good thing, because it puts all police departments and officers nationwide on notice that the courts will not excuse police who kill restrained citizens through carelessness, negligence or out of a misguided perception that they are in significant enough danger from handcuffed, hobbled suspects to justify using deadly force against them by crushing them to death.
The $500,000 settlement with Weigel’s family also included a requirement that Wyoming send a copy of the court ruling to every law-enforcement agency in Wyoming. That is perhaps the best thing to come from the sad death of Mr. Weigel at the hands of overzealous and uncaring Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers.
It would have been more just if troopers Henderson and Broad had been required to personally mail a copy of the decision to every law enforcement officer in the nation, personally, at their own expense, as just punishment for their negligence and disrespect for the civil rights of a Colorado citizen.
It is the unquestioned duty of our police to pay attention and use reasonable care to protect the lives and health of citizens whom they have arrested and taken into custody. We authorize our police to use reasonable and necessary force to take persons suspected of crimes into custody only upon the explicit understanding that when citizens are in their custody, they will be treated properly, with respect, and with due regard for their health and safety at all times. They are, after all, innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law, and police officers are expected to understand and respect this fact.
Allowing police to use untested, unapproved tactics like forcefully kneeling on people’s necks, heads or backs once they have been handcuffed presents a grave danger of permanent injury or death that cannot be justified by any specious claim that officers might receive minor injuries from a handcuffed suspect who continues to struggle. In many cases, it appears as if they are continuing to struggle because they are being asphyxiated to death by the police, and their struggles are perfectly reasonable, rational and necessary.
Our police must expect that wrestling with uncooperative suspects is just part of the job, and that resistance to police does not justify any sort of force that officers decide is appropriate. People should submit peacefully to arrest and take their case before the court, as the law requires. But failing to do so does not and should not justify the use of deadly physical force, even if it’s merely negligently or carelessly applied by poorly-trained and incompetent police officer that asphyxiates or injures the citizen.
If police officers fear injury so much that they feel justified in killing people who are handcuffed, then they have no business being police officers at all.
We must demand more of our police, and this ruling is the first step in establishing new, reasonable and appropriate police policies prohibiting the use of restraint tactics that pose an unreasonable risk of injuring or killing people by positional asphyxia or impact-related head and neck injuries.
© 2011 Altnews