Excessive force by police is increasingly featured in the national news. When police use excessive force against a citizen, the vast majority of police departments require that the officers complete a “use of force report” describing and justifying the force. In a perfect world, these reports would be detailed, complete, and objective. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. When excessive force is used by police, the sad truth is that use of force reports often leave out crucial information and contain only a bare minimum of facts. In cases where a person is injured or killed by police, it can take an experienced lawyer to fill in the blanks and learn the truth for the victim or surviving family members.
A perfect example of this occurred in a case handled by Budge & Heipt against a major city police department. The father of an injured man was trying to understand what caused his son to become gravely brain damaged after a police encounter. The father obtained the police reports, but they offered little in the way of answers. The reports only said that the man “stopped moving” and “went limp” during an in-custody arrest. The official reports offered almost nothing in the way of an explanation.
Because of their experience handling asphyxiation cases, the lawyers at Budge & Heipt had a sense of what might have happened even though the police reports offered little detail. A few clues led the lawyers at Budge & Heipt to investigate further, and their investigation revealed much more than what was contained in the police reports. In fact, almost all of the crucial details were totally missing from the police reports but came out later as a result of intensive deposition questioning by the lawyers.
The lawyers learned that the victim of the police force had been restrained in a face-down position. They learned that, in addition to being handcuffed, the man had had his feet tied together. They learned that police were putting pressure on the man’s back. They learned that the man was bleeding from the face or nose and vomiting when police had him on the ground. And, crucially, they learned that the police put a “spit hood” or “spit mask” over the man’s face and head—a cloth covering that makes it very difficult to breathe when wet with body fluids like blood and vomit. These facts were almost totally missing from the official reports.
Eventually, the lawyers were also able to find eyewitnesses who saw some of the events. A picture eventually emerged of a man who was restrained so forcefully, and for so long, that he could not breathe and suffocated under the weight of multiple officers. The lawyers at Budge & Heipt hired experts to do experimental testing on the spit hood and found that it almost no air could travel through it when wet with blood and/or vomit.
When all the pieces of the puzzle were put together, the city was forced to settle for a record amount to avoid a jury trial. But without the ability to “read between the lines,” no one would ever have known what truly occurred.
Edwin Budge has been representing clients in civil rights cases for more than 20 years. He focuses his energy and passion into seeking justice in cases involving restraint asphyxia or suffocation in jail or prison. Contact Budge & Heipt for a free consultation.