Tucson police in turmoil after death of Latino man

Author: SIMON ROMERO, The New York Times

Posted on July 15, 2020


The police chief of Tucson, Arizona, abruptly offered to resign on Wednesday while releasing a video in which a 27-year-old Latino man, Carlos Ingram Lopez, died in police custody two months ago.

The video, taken by police officers’ body cameras and not made public until Wednesday, depicts a gruesome episode on April 21. Before his death, Lopez is seen handcuffed while pleading repeatedly in English and Spanish for water and for his nana, or grandmother.

image of group protestingChief Chris Magnus said officers did not use a chokehold on Lopez. But he said officers violated training guidelines when they restrained the victim in a prone position, face down, for about 12 minutes before Lopez went into cardiac arrest and died at the scene.
The autopsy report said the cause of death was a combination of physical restraint and cardiac arrest involving cocaine intoxication. Three officers resigned from the department last Thursday, Magnus said.

The disclosure of Lopez’s death comes at a time when many Latinos around the United States are calling for changes in how police treat their communities, echoing similar calls by African Americans. The episode in Tucson occurred about a month before George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis, igniting protests throughout the country.

Mayor Regina Romero of Tucson appeared shaken while discussing Lopez’s death at a news conference Wednesday. She spoke in Spanish, offering condolences to Lopez’s family, while expressing indignation in English over what happened.

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“I am deeply troubled and outraged,” said Romero, who is the first Latina to serve as mayor of the heavily Latino city. “These officers would have been terminated had they not resigned.”

Two of the officers who resigned are white and one is African American, said Lane Santa Cruz, a member of the City Council who had been briefed on the episode and reviewed the video Tuesday. The police chief identified them as Samuel Routledge, Ryan Starbuck and Jonathan Jackson.

Magnus’ own offer to resign seemed to catch Romero, who was standing by his side, by surprise. She said she would examine the details of what happened before taking action.

The department’s handling of the issue is now coming under intense scrutiny. Authorities did not disclose details about Lopez’s death until Tuesday, when Romero canceled a City Council meeting after watching the video.

Before the release of the video, Magnus had publicly described the Tucson police force as one of the more progressive departments in the country. It had previously banned chokeholds and required officers to participate in cultural awareness and crisis intervention training.

Magnus said that officers were responding to a call regarding “disorderly conduct” by Lopez, who was unclothed and seemed to be acting erratically when the officers arrived at the scene. At one point, an officer told Lopez he would be “shocked” with a stun gun if he failed to cooperate.

In the news conference, Magnus said he had asked the FBI to review the episode, which has been under internal investigation in the department. He said the officers involved had not met the standards established in training for what he described as a mental health crisis involving “excited delirium.”

For years, many departments have trained officers that people held face down, in what is known as “prone restraint,” are more likely to die suddenly of positional asphyxia, because they have difficulty expanding their chest to bring in air.

This is particularly true if they are showing signs of mental distress or intoxication with stimulant drugs, a condition sometimes referred to as excited delirium. Guidelines for such circumstances usually call for officers to move people onto their side or sit them up as soon as possible.

The autopsy report for Lopez noted that he was restrained in a prone position with a spit hood, a mesh covering that goes over the head.

Latino leaders in Tucson expressed dismay and anguish after the video was released. Lane Santa Cruz, a member of the City Council, said the episode underscored how “we are disproportionately being killed by the police.”

Santa Cruz emphasized how desperate Lopez was while being restrained, calling for his nana. “In our culture, nanas are the matriarchs,” she said. “He was calling out for his lifeline.”

Seattle Times, June 25, 2020

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