Prone Restraint by Police: Poor Police Training Causes Asphyxiation

Prone restraint by police can cause asphyxiation, leading to serious injury or death.

Restraining a person face-down can be a recipe for tragedy—particularly when it involves putting pressure on the upper back, shoulders, neck or head of the person being restrained. When police “pile on” to someone’s upper body—pushing him or her into the ground with their knees, feet or body weight—a vicious cycle sometimes takes place. The person being restrained finds it difficult to breathe, resulting in a struggle to get air. The police perceive this as resistance and push down harder. This causes the person to struggle even harder, which, in turn, causes the police to push down even more. Eventually, police push so hard and for so long that the person cannot breathe at all. Sometimes police will stay on top of someone until he stops moving altogether. Unfortunately, by the time the person stops moving, he may have died or suffered serious brain injuries from lack of oxygen. This is sometimes called “compressional asphyxia,” “restraint-related asphyxia,” or “positional asphyxia.” But it is really nothing more than a simple lack of air from an inability to breathe in and out.

Face-down (or “prone”) police restraint can be considered excessive force. A perfect example of this took place in Seattle in 2010. The attorneys at Budge & Heipt represented the brain-injured victim of the excessive force.

The case arose from an incident that occurred at a Seattle apartment building. Seattle police officers went to the apartment of a Seattle man to arrest him on a low-level, non-violent warrant. The officers had been told that the man was mentally ill, in the midst of a mental health episode, and in need of mental health assistance.

Without explaining why they were there, officers suddenly grabbed the man. He allegedly pulled away and clasped his hands together in front of his chest. He did not attempt to assault the officers, flee or retreat into his apartment, or make any verbal threats. And although he purportedly grasped his hands in front of his chest, he was not being combative or aggressive toward the officers.

Numerous police officers pinned the man to the floor, on his stomach, and handcuffed him behind his back. They also tied his feet together. Unfortunately, instead of turning the man to his side and ensuring that he could breathe, the police did the opposite. The police officers kept the man face down on the floor. While keeping him in this prone (face-down) position, with his hands cuffed behind him, multiple officers were on top of him—applying pressure to his upper back, mid-torso, and legs. Due to their lack of training, the police did not recognize that they were putting the man’s life at risk.

Police kept the man handcuffed, leg-bound, and face down—compressing his upper and lower body to the ground for a number of minutes until his breathing became distressed and labored. Eventually, the man stopped moving altogether. Only then did the police officers get off of him. By then, it was too late. The man had suffocated under the weight of the police officers. Medics eventually regained a pulse and respiration—but not before the man sustained severe and permanent brain damage. Budge & Heipt represented the man in a federal lawsuit against the officers. After more than one year of litigation by Budge & Heipt, and with a jury trial near, the City of Seattle agreed to pay $1.75 million to settle the case. It was the most the City of Seattle had ever paid to settle an excessive force case against its officers.

Erik Heipt is an experienced courtroom litigator, focusing on catastrophic injury or wrongful death in prison or jail or by police. He seeks justice for the families and victims of restraint asphyxiation by police or while incarcerated. Contact Budge & Heipt for a free consultation.

If you or a loved one has been a victim of serious injury and/or death at the hands of police or in jail or prison, tell us about your case.