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Variety of factors contribute to non-lethal force deaths
In the last two weeks, two men have died after being restrained by police officers; one in Minneapolis and one in St. Paul. In both cases, police officers used non-lethal methods to take the men into custody. Studies show that generally, more than one factor that leads to the fatality in these situations. Some say police officers can avoid these kinds of deaths, through better training. But law enforcement officials say police custody deaths are rare and the use of this kind of force is sometimes the only way to handle a violent suspect.

St. Paul, Minn. — There are significant similarities in the deaths of Lorenzo Doby who died in Minneapolis and James Arthur Cobb who died in St. Paul. According to police reports, both men were acting in a violent and erratic manner. Both men struggled with police officers. Both men were sprayed with a chemical irritant, like pepper spray. Both men are African-American.

Dr. Cyril Wecht says police custody deaths typically share common characteristics, including the medical history of the suspects. Dr. Wecht is the coroner of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, which includes the city of Pittsburgh. Wecht has been a practicing pathologist for more than 40 years and has studied this phenomenon in his county and around the country. "Sometimes someone with a chronic pulmonary disease such as bronchial asthma, chronic bronchitis, someone with a heart condition," says Wecht. "Such individuals are much more susceptible to stress, physical violence sometimes pressure of bodies, of hands and feet upon them, making respiratory activity more difficult."

"Mental illness is a health problem and should be dealt by health care professionals. And whenever I raise this people say, oh my god you can't send nurses out, you know nurses are expensive. Well, nurses aren't as expensive as cops."
- John Trepp

Race also plays a factor. Wecht says African-Americans have high rates of asthma and sickle cell trait - which is similar to sickle cell anemia. Lorenzo Doby's mother told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune newspaper that her son had asthma. Earlier this year, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Office found that another black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis last year, Anthony Maurice Williams, also had the sickle cell trait.

"Past medical history is therefore important with African-Americans," says Wecht. "Sickle cell trait can precipitate a sickle cell crisis which leads to death, suddenly."

Some research suggests the sickled or deformed red blood cells can restrict blood flow to and from the lungs after extreme exertion and lead to death.

Nationwide statistics on deaths in police custody aren't readily available. There is no central government agency that collects them. But earlier this year, the U.S. Justice Department's research agency, the National Institute of Justice, finished a study of 63 police custody deaths involving the use of pepper spray. The data bear out some of Dr. Wecht's claims. African-Americans were the majority of victims. Many of the subjects had some kind of prior medical condition. Additionally, many of the deceased had ingested cocaine or methamphetamine.

"All of these cases involve drugs and disease, drugs and disease combined with the confrontational situations to such a degree that in the writer's mind, they cannot be separated in any convincing manner," according to the study's author.

Dr. Wecht is also critical of police restraint tactics. He says officers should take into account that the combination of drugs, pepper spray and the method of restraint can lead to a fatality. Wecht says pepper spray makes it hard for anyone to breathe, much less someone with asthma.

Positional asphyxiation is a cause of death which can and does happen when a suspect is laid on his stomach, hands behind him and pressure is applied to his back. Wecht says this goes beyond restraint.

"You go and check those cases and you'll find very, very few have involved - the victims have been involved in or were even thought to be involved in significant, major felonies," says Wecht.

Some say whether or not someone is committing a major offense is not the issue.

"I think it's really hard for people to comprehend how difficult it is to take someone into custody who doesn't want to be arrested," says Paul Schnell, public information officer for the St. Paul Police department.

Schnell is also in charge of training officers on how to handle situations involving a person exhibiting signs of mental illness. Minnesota Public Radio talked to Schnell a few days before James Cobb died in St. Paul police custody.

Schnell says when officers arrive at a scene, they have to make a quick assessment. They are neither medical doctors nor psychologists. But Schnell says they are trained to judge potential safety risks and use the minimal amount of force necessary to get the person into custody.

"Police regard this, these types of incidents as serious," says Schnell. "And yet at the same time, the question is, is there a reasonable alternative? Would it have been better to have let the person go completely? And not even deal with them."

But some say perhaps the police shouldn't be called in cases where someone is clearly experiencing mental health problems or is high and out of control.

John Trepp, an advocate for people with mental health issues and a member of the Barbara Schneider foundation, named for a mentally ill woman who was shot and killed by Minneapolis officers four years ago. An investigation by the Hennepin County sheriff's office concluded that police acted appropriately given the circumstances. Trepp says police officers shouldn't be the first point of contact with a person is suffering from a breakdown.

"Mental illness is a health problem and should be dealt by health care professionals," says Trepp. "And whenever I raise this people say, oh my god you can't send nurses out, you know nurses are expensive. Well, nurses aren't as expensive as cops."

Trepp and other members of the Barbara Schneider Foundation persuaded the Minneapolis police department to implement a Crisis Intervention Team. Minneapolis police officials say 120 officers have received 40 hours of training on dealing with people experiencing severe mental health problems. There are CIT trained officers available in each precinct. Police officials are not certain if CIT officers were present two weeks ago when Lorenzo Doby died.

Paul Schnell says out of thousands of arrests in the metro area every year, deaths in custody involving non-lethal force are rare. Excluding officer shootings and Wednesday morning's incident, Schnell says he can only remember one custody death in the last 10 or 20 years in St. Paul. That one was technically not a custody death, he says. A man died last year after he was dropped off at the detox center.

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