Sunday, November 19, 2000

Arrest of unwilling suspect can be lethal

Too much pressure, face-down position can stop breathing

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When police officers draw their guns, there's little doubt their next move could take a life.

        But sometimes a set of handcuffs can be just as lethal.

        The death of Roger Owensby on Nov. 7 in Roselawn is a reminder of how the routine task of taking a suspect into police custody can turn deadly if something goes wrong.

        No one fired a shot. No one drew a knife. And still, Mr. Owensby collapsed and died after being handcuffed and put into the back seat of a Cincinnati police cruiser.

        The Hamilton County coroner attributes Mr. Owensby's death to “mechanical asphyxiation,” which means he somehow was deprived of oxygen.

        The same cause of death has been cited in at least a dozen other cases around the country involving suspects who died even though police did not appear to use deadly force.

        Investigators are not yet sure what led to Mr. Owensby's asphyxiation, partly because the five officers involved have chosen not to make statements to investigators. But similar cases from California to Pennsylvania show the causes can vary widely.

        “It's important to understand that anytime you restrain someone, bad things can happen,” said Dr. Donald Reay, a former medical examiner in Seattle who has studied asphyxiation cases.

        He said arrests are volatile, stressful situations for both the officers and the suspect. If the suspect is attempting to flee or using drugs, the arrest could quickly become violent.

        Attempts to subdue a suspect often lead to officers forcing the person to the ground, face down, while locking the suspect's hands behind his back with handcuffs.

        Sometimes, Dr. Reay said, the pressure from officers “piling on” or pushing down on the suspect's back can make breathing nearly impossible.

        If the suspect is left in that position, he may not be able to begin breathing again even if the officers stop exerting pressure. The suspect could pass out within 15 seconds and die within minutes.

        Dr. Reay said problems sometimes occur even if officers use little or no force.

        He said “positional asphyxiation” can happen when an unconscious or semi-conscious suspect is left handcuffed in a position that does not allow him to breath easily. If the suspect is weak, drunk or on drugs, it could be fatal to squeeze him into a small space or leave him face down on the ground.

        “I think there's an awareness now that when you put somebody face down, you have to watch them,” Dr. Reay said. “You've got the potential for major problems.”

        In Mr. Owensby's case, the only thing clear at this point is that something caused him to die of asphyxiation. Police investigators are still trying to piece together the events leading up to his death.

        What they find will be crucial to Hamilton County Coroner Carl Parrott. Dr. Parrott said he needs more information before completing his report on Mr. Owensby's death.

        He said mechanical asphyxiation is a broad term that covers everything from strangulation to compression of the chest.

        “We just don't have enough information at this point,” Dr. Parrott said.

        But he said the autopsy indicates Mr. Owensby might have died from more than positional asphyxiation. He said Mr. Owensby had tiny ruptures of blood vessels in his eyes, which typically result from pressure caused by neck or chest compression.

        “The autopsy suggests there's a little more going on here than just simple positional asphyxia,” Dr. Parrott said.

        He said Mr. Owensby had other injuries, but none severe enough to threaten his life: a split lip, a cut on his forehead, a bruise on his cheek and bruises on his back.

        Until the investigation is complete, Dr. Parrott said, it will be impossible to know for certain how Mr. Owensby died.

        “It gets real complicated,” he said. “We've got a tangle of events here.”


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