- Eric Dexheimer American-Statesman Staff
More than 50 people over the past decade have died at least in part due to the way police forcibly restrained them or the physical stress associated with being taken into custody, according to an American-Statesman investigation of nearly 300 Texas fatalities from 2005 to 2016.
Medical examiners determined four-fifths of the cases were homicides. In some instances, pathologists identified a specific police action as deadly.
In August 2005, when Allen police informed Edgar Vera that he was being arrested for an outstanding warrant for a seat belt violation, Vera resisted, eventually dying during the struggle. The Dallas medical examiner found his death was due to “positional asphyxia” — being held in a position that compromised his breathing.
Law enforcement officers place citizens under restraint tens of thousands of times every day. The overwhelming majority of such incidents occur without a hitch. Police say confrontational or violent interactions, however, present them with some of their job’s most formidable challenges.
Suspects can be intoxicated and dangerously out of control on drugs that numb them to reason and pain. Officers must balance their efforts to take combative citizens into custody with the duty not to unnecessarily hurt them in the process.
Departments train on restraint techniques and proper use of tools such as their weapons, handcuffs and leg shackles. Yet officers in some cases failed to follow policies designed to minimize harm, the newspaper’s review found. Even then, it was rare for police to be held accountable.
After a confrontation with 42-year-old Wayne Pratt, Harris County sheriff’s deputies took him into custody using handcuffs and leg hobbles.
“At this point, Pratt’s handcuffs were connected to the hobble restraint behind his back,” according to court documents. “Pratt was ‘hog-tied’” — a controversial restraint tactic banned by the Harris County sheriff’s department and many other law enforcement agencies, including the Austin Police Department, because of concerns over asphyxia.
A short time later, medics noticed Pratt wasn’t breathing.
“The hospital called and said, ‘Your son spent the night here,’” recalled his mother, Erony Pratt, who lives near the University of Houston, 5 miles away. “I said, ‘How is he?’ And they told me: ‘He passed away this morning.’ He died without me knowing.”
The Harris County medical examiner noted “possible … asphyxiation due to prone restraint” but ultimately found the cause of Pratt’s death “undetermined.”
A private pathologist hired by the family concluded Pratt’s death was the result of residual cocaine in his system and being held down by police.
The newspaper identified eight additional cases since 2005 in which documents indicate the person died in police custody after being placed in the hogtied position.
Asphyxia not always obvious
Most of Texas’ restraint-related fatalities were described by medical examiners only in general terms. In 2013, the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office concluded Jermaine Darden, who died after Fort Worth police shocked him with a Taser and then held him down during a SWAT raid, succumbed to a heart attack “and application of restraint.”
Pathologists technically divide such deaths into three categories: Positional asphyxia is holding a person’s body in a way such that he can’t breathe. Compression asphyxia is when a person, usually lying on the ground, is loaded with enough force or weight that he can’t inhale. Mechanical asphyxia is typically associated with choke holds.
The categories aren’t always clear-cut. Thomas Klessig, a 23-year-old diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, died of “mechanical compression” after University Park police, responding to a call about a suspicious person, forcibly wrestled and pinned him to the ground.
Proving that someone died due to any of type of suffocation is tricky and not always obvious.
“A lot of times there’s nothing you can point to on the autopsy that says, ‘Aha, asphyxia!’” said Brian Peterson, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners. “They tend to be very challenging autopsies.”
Peterson, who is also chief medical examiner for Milwaukee County, Wis., said often the only way for pathologists to determine if and how a person has died from restraint is by seeing or hearing what occurred.
“You have to have a really good investigation — accurate witness accounts, video,” he said. “And the history is only as good as the history you get. If there are eight officers on top of the guy, and nobody tells you, you’re not going to know.”
Implicit in the determination of restraint asphyxia is that someone caused the death. Of the 52 custodial deaths analyzed by the Statesman in which medical examiners cited restraint as contributing to the fatality, 42 were considered homicides. In eight cases, the cause was undetermined, one was deemed an accident and another was labeled natural.
Almost all were found to have been justifiable. The newspaper found a single instance in which police could be held responsible for an in-custody restraint death: Two jailers have been charged with criminally negligent homicide after Jonathan Paul died in March 2015 in an Arlington jail of “physical restraints and acute psychosis.”
(Two officers were fired after Curtis Lee Lewis died from cocaine and “physiological stress and possible traumatic asphyxia while being restrained by police officers” who hogtied him in the back of a Temple police cruiser in 2005, however, on appeal their punishment was adjusted to a 15-day suspension.)
One reason is that other factors, such as illegal drugs or underlying medical conditions, often figured into the fatalities. Another is that there has been little conclusive research into whether police can kill people by taking them into custody incorrectly.
“There has been no scientific study that (concluded that) anyone put in a face-down or hogtied position had their breathing so compromised they passed out and died,” said John Peters, president of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Deaths, a nonprofit organization that promotes best practices. “In a lot of cases, there is no cause; the guy just died. Sometimes, in their attempts to explain it, medical examiners mention restraint asphyxia and the reason isn’t clear.”
Yet Peters also acknowledged that the studies were performed on healthy people — not the typical agitated subject encountered by police. “We really don’t have research or people who are hopped up on drugs or strung out psychologically.”
Peterson, the medical examiner, said, “The experimental work has not included a 300-pound guy with a lethal dose of meth on board.”
Peterson added many police hold onto misconceptions about restraint.
When Willie Ray Banks told the Burnet County officers pinning him on the ground in December 2011, “I can’t breathe,” one replied: “If you can talk, you can breathe.”
“That’s one of the truisms that isn’t true,” Peterson said. “You can have enough oxygen and time to say that while your heart is stopping.”
According to an autopsy, Banks died soon after of methamphetamine intoxication and “restraint procedures.”
Hogtying often banned
In September 2007, Medina County sheriff’s deputies entered Donald Wayne Jacob’s mobile home after getting called to a possible homicide. After a struggle, the combative 49-year-old was restrained. His “ankles were tied together with what appeared to be tan gauze bandages that were then connected to the handcuffs,” a supervisor reported.
He became unresponsive minutes later in the back of an ambulance.
Jacobs “suffered a sudden death while restrained due to excited delirium,” the Bexar County medical examiner’s office concluded, noting: “The decedent was restrained (‘hog-tied’ in a prone position). … This type of restraint has been associated with positional asphyxia in some cases.”
The effects of hogtying — the term commonly used when police connect leg shackles or hobbles to handcuffs behind a suspect’s back — are particularly complicated. It makes anatomical sense that concentrating a person’s body weight onto his chest can restrict breathing, and federal courts in a handful of precedent-setting legal cases — one in San Antonio — have concluded that, in limited circumstances, the practice can be considered excessive force. (A similar Wyoming case further defined hogtying as binding the prisoner’s wrists and ankles within a foot of each other.)
As with other restraint-related deaths, however, scientific proof that hogtying by itself can be fatal is scant.
“There’s this mythology that’s grown up around hogtying, that if you do it, you’re going to kill them,” Peters said.
Yet, he added, there is still enough uncertainty about the practice that “I tell people: Don’t hogtie people. We don’t think it’s a good picture to cinch people up like that. There’s equipment out there today that can be applied to people who are fighting continuously.” He cited a seat-belted blanket that wraps around and immobilizes a suspect’s legs.
The San Antonio, Fort Worth and Austin police departments ban hogtying. “The hog-tie method of maximum restraint will not be used,” the Dallas Police Department policy states, because it “places the prisoner in a physical position that restricts breathing capability and places the subject at risk for positional asphyxia.”
“Death penalty at hands of police”
Harris County officials vowed in 2009 to study the practice of hogtying after a jury ordered it to pay $3 million to the family of Joel Don Casey. The 52-year-old died in 2005 of “psychotic delirium with physical restraint” after Pct. 1 Constable deputies responding to a mental health warrant hogtied him. A spokeswoman for the county attorney’s office said she could not comment on whether such a study was actually undertaken.
Still, a policy prohibiting the practice for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office was in effect on May 13, 2010, when deputies responded to a minor traffic accident.
Wayne Pratt “was running in circles with his hands in the air” and “appeared to be intoxicated and his behavior was erratic,” the police report stated. When officers tried to interact with him, “Pratt did not respond, but began to walk away.”
The standoff escalated to a physical struggle. Two officers used their Tasers to shock Pratt seven times. Eventually, they secured him in handcuffs and a leg hobble. One officer knelt on his back, according to court documents.
In their reports, the deputies’ recollections were inconsistent on whether they connected the two devices. But in his report, a medic described Pratt as hogtied, noting his leg restraints had to be removed to roll Pratt onto his back for treatment. By then, Pratt had stopped breathing and had no pulse.
According to Harris County sheriff’s office policy: “Restraining a prisoner through a procedure commonly known as ‘hog-tying’ shall not be utilized.’” A grand jury declined to indict any of the deputies, however, and an internal agency investigation cleared them of misconduct.
Pratt’s mother, Erony, sued the department, claiming the hogtying was excessive force. In January 2015, a judge concluded the Harris County deputies were immune from liability. In a May 2016 opinion, the majority of a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, writing: “An assertion of hog-tying alone does not constitute a claim of excessive force.”
Yet one of the judges strongly disagreed.
“Wayne Pratt received the death penalty at the hands of three police officers for the misdemeanor crime of failing to stop and give information,” Judge Catharina Haynes wrote in dissent. “We have already concluded that the use of a hog-tie restraint in certain circumstances constitutes the use of deadly force,” she added, noting the San Antonio case. “Those circumstances were present here.”
Deputies should have known Pratt was under the influence of drugs — one of the factors that could make hogtying excessive force, according to earlier cases, Haynes said. “The officers here used both the hog-tie restraint and put a knee on his back, greatly impairing his ability to breathe.”
Erony Pratt appealed the decision, but three months ago the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear her case.
“He suffocated,” Pratt said. “He was hogtied, and couldn’t breathe. That’s brutality.”