Justice still pending for Marcus Deon Smith

As we mourned and remembered yesterday the life of George Floyd, let’s not forget that countless others have died as a result of excessive police force. I am committed to learning about the use of excessive force and and to learn what I can do to lessen its use. I started with researching the state of policing and citizen complaint procedures in Fairfax County, VA where I live. I discovered that there is a device called the Ripp Hobble, one of many listed ‘types of force’ used by the county. It piqued my attention, because I had never heard of it before, nor could I easily guess what it was.

The Ripp Hobble is a restraint produced by Ripp Restraints International which markets and sells its products to police departments. The device is used to restrain a person’s hands and feet. The instructions for its use state to use it only on a person who is a seated in an upright position. It can also be used to connect tied feet to tied hands with an attached strap. The instructions also state: Never Hog Tie a Prisoner. Wait, what?!

This brings us to the story of Marcus Deon Smith who died at the hands of police after being hog-tied in Greensboro, North Carolina on September 8th, 2018.

Marcus, who had mental health issues and was homeless, had been wandering late at night in a state of delusion, high on cocaine, on a two lane road, shouting in the air that he was going to kill himself. Cars were having difficulty passing by safely as he darted across the street many times. The police were patiently and calmly trying to contain Marcus while directing cars to pass by slowly and safely, despite not having contained him. He had no weapons.

In the police video released right after his death in 2018, you can see that Marcus was not a direct threat to anyone, but seemed unable to take directions or walk in a straight line. This is known as ‘excited delirium’. Marcus was aged 38 at the time of his death.

The police seemed to have patience and wanted to help him which they conveyed multiple times to him verbally. I wondered if the blaring police lights exacerbated Marcus’ drug induced delusions. I don’t know much about the side effects of cocaine usage.

Eventually Marcus made his way on his own to sit in the back of the police car. The police weren’t following through on driving him to the hospital as they had told him they would and he became agitated and started hitting the windows. It appears the officers were waiting for an ambulance which they had called for.

Marcus was able to get out of the car. As Marcus emerged from the police car, the officers wrestled him to the ground where he struggled as they first tied his hands, then bent his legs backwards to tie them to his hands at the area around the small of his back. It is hard to tell, but my impression that his struggle had already lessened as they they were tying the feet. When does procedure and training get in the way of making choices about what restraint is actually needed in the moment?

As the officers rolled Marcus from his front to his side, his struggle had clearly fully subsided. One officer checks and notices either a weak pulse or none at all. He dies within the following hour. The shared police video ends shortly after he is put in the ambulance.

By January, 2019, it was decided that no charges would be pressed. The autopsy reveals the restraint as a reason for death along with other factors including drugs, alcohol, hypertension. The family pursues justice through 2019.

The Police Chief doesn’t resign until January of 2020.

And on April 10th, 2020, with the help of a legal team that includes the negotiator of a 2015 5.5 million dollar landmark Chicago police torture reparation award, Marcus’ parents got some good news. A federal judge ruled that several claims can move forward against the city, the county, and the 8 officers and the two medics that were at the scene.

Smith’s family alleges that by binding him, police violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to be free from excessive force. More details on the case can be found here.

Aside from adherence to improved ‘policies and procedures’, it is evident to me that the minute to minute decisions and intentions of police officers are another key to positive future outcomes. How self-aware, individually and as a group, are these policemen about the decision process they are going through ‘in the moment’? This case likely could have gone in several other directions with a likely non-homicide outcome.

As I realize that the Emergency Personnel are implicated in this case, I realize that my own son, who is a paramedic emergency responder could face similar situations. How are Paramedics trained so that they are not ‘bystanders’ to a similar excessive use of force incident? Are they trained for these types of situations?

Together all responders must raise the bar and after doing so, must hold each other to their highest standards of using least-force necessary. Justice is a long, long fight for the family. The systemic factors protecting the police officers and emergency responders may not lead to the outcome the family wants. My prior post addresses those factors.

If you are further interested in restraints, training on their proper use, here is additional information I’ve pieced together.

Ripp International has a separate method of restraint for Emergency Medical Situations. There is training on the Ripp International website where Sudden Custody Death Syndrome is addressed. I gleaned that from the description of the training but did not purchase the training. I learned from the description that ‘positional asphyxia‘ can be caused by use of restraints and the process of restraining. The research on cause/effect of positional asphyxia is far from thorough based on what is in the Wikipedia link. Yet enough information is there to potentially help officers to make alternate decisions in some cases.

There is a youtube police training video on the ‘proper use’ of Ripp Hobble devices for patients with ‘excited delirium’. I found that the description of excited delirium matched the behavior on the police video of Marcus. But when the officers used this method to restrain Marcus, it seemed to me they bent his legs at a much tighter angle than this training video shows. Aspyxia can also be caused by too much pressure on the chest. What would happen if that sort of ‘hog-tying’ was outlawed? What could be used effectively instead? Treating people as animals is inhumane.

My conclusions:

Short of changes to laws and allowed procedures, purchasers of such devices, including police and emergency personnel, should be required to take training in their proper use, on the risks of each type of usage, and on safer alternatives that can be used in the moment.

Training the officers to always go through a quick choice process in least-force first in an evolving situation might further add to fewer deaths. Asking the right questions in the moment of each other and holding each other to account as a team is a possible developmental area.

I am curious now to find out how my Fairfax County police and EMS departments train on proper use and risks of restraints.

6/8/2020 – I just found out how my Fairfax County, VA police department handles similar situations by watching this video.

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