All too frequently in recent weeks, Arizona has become a subject that Chris Hayes covers on his show “All In” due to our rapidly expanding COVID19 crisis, and now the April death in Tucson police custody of Carlos Ingram-Lopez.
Though I certainly recommend listening to Chris’ full show, an interesting interview with Rep. Ruben Gallego begins at 7:25 and the segment with the attorney for the family of Mr. Ingram-Lopez begins at 34:00. I recommend a listen.
If you haven’t seen the body camera footage of the death of Mr. Ingram-Lopez, which the TPD has finally released to the public, you can view it below. I warn you though, it is heartbreaking to watch a man die. The raw video is approximately a half-hour long.
The video amply demonstrates why we need to stop primarily using police to respond to mental health and drug-use crises, among others. Men and women trained to use force to address a crisis should not always be our first responders to situations like Carlos’ grandmother’s alarm about his behavior.
Carlos appears to have represented no threat to anyone’s safety, other than his own, and immediately surrendered to police custody, yet he was treated very callously and incautiously by TPD officers. One could certainly imagine this encounter going much differently if it had started differently than an officer yelling, “Get on the fucking ground!” The officers also seem to have immediately determined that they would be transporting Carlos to jail, rather than to a hospital. What exactly he’s done to warrant jail at this point is unclear to me. He might be said to have committed a domestic disturbance with his grandmother as a victim of his Disorderly Conduct, but that is far from clear.
It is hard to tell from this footage alone, but it appears that at least one officer was resting some portion of his body weight on Carlos’ back at least some of the time as he starts making wheezing, crying, wailing, and throat clearing sounds while prone, face down, under the officer. Officers cover him with blankets for warmth or modesty, since he is nude during their encounter.
The officers then appear to put a ‘spit sock’ on Carlos’ head as he lay under the blankets. This is a standard procedure when a suspect is spitting at officers, but I saw no spitting at officers, just throat clearing and spitting sounds as he lay facedown under restraint. It certainly seems to have been unnecessary to place a spit sock on Carlos at that point. A spit sock might have become necessary as officers attempt to transport him, if he then tries to spit at the officers, but it’s not clear to me that placement of the spit sock is anything other than precautionary when it is administered.
Carlos is clearly in some distress at this point and arguably in need of medical attention, yet the officers do nothing to ease his distress, instead keeping Carlos face down on the floor. Soon after, at about 14 minutes into the video, officers finally move to lift Carlos to transport him to jail when they suddenly realize he has become unresponsive, and one officer questions whether he is breathing. Only then do they move to reposition Carlos into a “recovery position” on his side.
One officer is seen to administer sternum rubs and they struggle to revive him. They show lights in his face, call to him, and slap him in an attempt to revive him. One officer calls for the dispatcher to roll Tucson Fire Department para-medic support, presuming he’s merely unconscious. Officers appear to presume he may be on opioids and overdosing, and seek to provide Narcan. The radio officer tells the dispatcher to roll TFD with a 10-18 (quickly) call. Only at this point, they uncuff him and move him into the driveway to make room for their efforts to revive him. They seem to realize after seeking it a few times that Carlos hasn’t any pulse. Still presuming he’s overdosed, they begin CPR.
Soon after CPR begins you hear the sirens of the TFD para-medics. After a few minutes, as the Fire Department arrives, and an officer opines that it looked to him that Carlos vomited inside his mask and asperated. One might presume that the officer saw some evidence of this conjecture. It seems possible that Carlos vomited, aspirated his vomit, and suffocated, leading to cardiac arrest. That seems to have been at least one officer’s observation.
The medical examiner’s report concludes that the cause of death was “sudden cardiac arrest in the setting of acute cocaine intoxication and physical restraint.” No mention is made of vomit in the ME report. The separate toxicology report supports the conclusions of the ME report. The levels of cocaine (628 ng/mL) and benzoylecgonine (7468 ng/mL) are certainly consistent with death due to acute cocaine intoxication, although I’m not an expert on these matters, I am familiar with normal levels found in users, and these are very high.
I don’t know if Carlos’ death was preventable. It certainly seems to me that, if he were treated with a modicum of restraint and compassion, rather than presumptive force and restraint, he may not have died.
I can’t being to imagine how terrible this episode was for his grandmother, and the terrible guilt she must feel for having called for aid the very people who seem to have contributed to her grandson’s death. The way the police treated her in this video is also terribly discourteous and dismissive, but not terribly surprising, I’m sad to say.
The Tucson Police Deparment has long been, in my experience as a prosecutor, progressive and professional. I have also known officers to be reckless, needlessly cruel, and downright unprofessional. Like any large organization consisting of humans, there will be bad people inside, but it’s more than just a few bad people from which results like these emerge: it is a bad culture.
And I’m not talking solely of police culture, though that certainly plays a role. I’m talking about our culture. We have too often handed off unwanted and persistent problems to the police to handle out of sight and out of mind. We have asked our police to do too much, to handle situations for which they are not suited, or cannot be adequately trained. That is our fault, not that of the police.
Just as the officers called paramedics when it became apparent that the situation with Carlos was beyond their training and capacity to cope with, we should use police as a backup only for when situations become dangerous and violent, not as the first choice for first response in all circumstances. That is what is meant when protesters want to “defund the police.” They don’t want to eliminate police, they want them to be just one tool in a range of options for community discord and emergency response, not the first tool, nor the only tool. Doing that is going to take a redistribution of municipal and county and state resources across this nation away from just police and into a range of community services.
Too often, the result of inappropriate police response to crisis is a tragedy like that of Carlos. Given the extremity of some of the situations we expect the police to handle for us, we shouldn’t be surprised by such outcomes. Frankly, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more, and that it doesn’t is a general testament to the professionalism, dedication, restraint, and training of most police officers.
We should not be surprised at the results if we try to use a hammer to open a window. As a culture, we need to learn to use the right tools for the project of building community peace and safety.