On Sept. 8, 2018, Marcus Deon Smith was arrested after exhibiting erratic behavior in traffic. While in the back of the police car, Marcus began screaming and hitting the windows of the vehicle. Officers opened the door, placed him on the ground and hogtied him. During this process, his breathing became irregular, then stopped. Officers noticed he was unresponsive and called the EMS. Marcus was rushed to Cone Hospital, but died in the Emergency Department.
The Greensboro Police Department contacted the State Bureau of Investigation to perform an independent investigation. It was during this investigation that the NC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner performed an autopsy. The document outlines three main causes of death: Sudden cardiopulmonary arrest due to prone restraint, hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, as well as n-ethylpentylone, cocaine and alcohol use. He suffered from blunt force injuries and resuscitation-related injuries.
The Medical Examiner concluded that Marcus Smith’s death should be classified as a homicide. In Dec. 2018, the SBI closed their investigation and turned over their evidence to the District Attorney’s office. In one of his last decisions in office, District Attorney Doug Henderson decided that the officers involved were not criminally negligent for the death of Marcus Smith. In April of 2019, the Greensboro City Council considered opening an independent investigation into Smith’s death. However, the Smith family has filed a lawsuit against the police, paramedics and City of Greensboro.
Marcus Smith’s death is just another example of how hard it is to hold the police responsible for their actions. Former DA Doug Henderson stated in a letter to the police chief that the Ripp Hobble policy states that a person should be restrained in an upright position or on their side to avoid harm. However, Marcus was restrained in the prone position, which meant that police did not correctly use the Ripp Hobble device. This should be a cut-and-dried case of police negligence, but no one was held responsible. This is not surprising, as it is exceedingly rare for police killings to even make it to trial.
Now there are numerous ways to define a police killing, but I will use the definition used by MappingPoliceViolence. According to them, a police killing is, “a case where a person dies as a result of being chased, beaten, arrested, restrained, shot, pepper sprayed, tasered or otherwise harmed by police officers, whether on-duty or off-duty, intentional or accidental.”
It is almost impossible to tell how many people have been killed by police in the U.S. The federal government tracks police killings through the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports (SHR), the Bureau of Justice Statistics Arrest-Related Deaths database and the CDC’s National Vital Statistics System. However, all three of these programs seriously undercount the number of deaths caused by police. Investigations by RTI International, Harvard Public Health researchers, The Guardian, The Washington Post and even the BJS themselves, determined that all three programs only recorded about half of all police killings across various years.
The high level of undercounting has been attributed to a number of factors. The ARD collects data from state reporting coordinators, which can lead to varying degrees of inaccuracy. This is because many states lack the technology to accurately collect data and fail to communicate with law enforcement and coroner’s offices. SHR relies on voluntary reports sent in by partnered agencies, which means that many departments choose not to send anything. There are actually entire states that do not report to SHR. Florida is one of them. The NVSS relies on diagnosis codes from state death certificates to indicate whether “legal intervention” was involved in a death. Many medical professionals fail to mention police involvement in these documents. I believe the most accurate databases are by The Guardian, the Washington Post, and MappingPoliceViolence, but even those have inaccuracies.
Besides the lack of data on police killings, the Justice Department struggles to ensure police are held accountable for their actions. For example, in 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended a police oversight program that was highly effective in curbing police abuse. The Collaborative Reform Initiative allowed for the federal government to reform local police departments and promote police-community relations. It allowed for local departments to request the DOJ’s help in conducting investigations of problematic law enforcement agencies and suggested ways to reform these agencies. Sessions’ new program focused on fighting gangs, drug trafficking and violent crime. The program even focused on the suppression of mass protests and allowed for local departments to request for experts in protest suppression.
DOJ police oversight became even worse in 2018. On Nov. 11, 2018, Jeff Sessions left his post as Attorney General. His last action in office was to limit the ability of federal law enforcement to use consent decrees. Consent decrees are court-ordered agreements to overhaul police departments accused of abuse and civil rights violations. Surprisingly, Sessions admitted in his final memorandum that consent decrees are sometimes the only way to ensure that law enforcement follows the law. On page two he states, “While consent decrees are sometimes necessary and appropriate to secure compliance with federal law, federal court decrees that impose wide-ranging and long-term obligations on, or require ongoing judicial supervision of, state or local governments are extraordinary remedies that ‘raise sensitive federalism concerns.’”
There is more than enough evidence that police oversight is failing. But do not take my word for it- just visit any of the police killing databases I mentioned. You can read the Greensboro News and Record, and see almost weekly allegations of police brutality. Or if you are a person of color, you will notice a level of police scrutiny that is borderline harassment. The police are not always there to protect and serve- sometimes they neglect and injure. We need more police misconduct investigations, more law enforcement transparency and more prosecutors willing to hold the police accountable for their actions. As the police grow more violent and secretive, we should ask ourselves: “Who watches the watchmen?”