Prone Restraint: A Deadly Police Practice

What do George Floyd and Cedric “CJ” Lofton have in common?

Yes, they were killed while being restrained by law enforcement officers. However, the similarity goes further. They were both killed while being restrained in a prone position.

Sudden death while in this type of constraint is an ongoing problem in law enforcement.

A “prone” investigation conducted jointly by two television stations – one in Denver, the other in Minneapolis – found more than 119 deaths between 2010 and mid 2021 with a finding similar to the one listed on CJ’s autopsy.

CJ’s cause of death was identified as “complications of cardiopulmonary arrest sustained after physical struggle restrained in the prone position.”

Expert after expert testified in the trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin that prone restraint led to the death of Floyd on May 25, 2020.

Warnings to law enforcement departments about the potential of “sudden” death from prone restraint date back to 1995 when the Department of Justice issued a bulletin warning officers about positional asphyxia — i.e., death as a result of body position that interferes with one’s ability to breathe — as it occurs within a confrontational situation involving law enforcement officers.

We offer this information to help officers recognize factors contributing to this phenomenon and, therefore, enable them to respond in a way that will ensure the subject’s safety and minimize risk of death,” read the bulletin.

The bulletin describes a typical cycle of interaction leading to asphyxiation. The suspect is restrained in a face-down position and their breathing becomes labored. Weight is applied to the person’s back causing more compression and further decreasing the individual’s breath. The natural reaction to get oxygen is to struggle violently and the officer responds by applying more compression to subdue the individual.

The advisory bulletin recommendation: “Get the suspect off their stomach as soon as they’re handcuffed.” The bulletin points out NYPD guidelines, which call for officers to turn the suspect on their side or get them in a seated position.

Seth Stoughton, a former police officer turned law professor at the University of South Carolina, was one of many experts to testify in the Chauvin trial. He talked with the Prone Investigation team about the problem with law enforcement officers not heeding the decades of warnings when it comes to the potential dangers of prone restraint.

Once somebody has been restrained, they should not stay in the prone restraint position,” Stoughton said. “It’s difficult to watch officers continue to make the same mistake.”

FEW PROSECUTIONS

Despite more than 15 years of knowledge about the potential problem with prone restraint, officers continue to use the tactic and get away without prosecution when a suspect dies suddenly. According to the Prone Investigation, only a handful of law enforcement officers were criminally charged in the cases they reviewed.

Too often coroners fail to identify the death in these cases as homicide, instead placing the cause of death elsewhere, such as unidentified heart problems, drugs in their suspects system or just overall poor health.

In the case of CJ Lofton, this isn’t a battle that has to be fought. The coroner has identified prone constraint as a contributor in his death. The problem is getting local agencies to

Bonita Gooch

Since 1996, Bonita has served as as Editor-in-Chief of The Community Voice newspaper. As the owner, she has guided the Wichita-based publication’s growth in reach across the state of Kansas and into...

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