The deaths of Eric Garner in New York and George Floyd in Minnesota created national outrage over the use of deadly police restraints. There were many others you didn’t hear about.
“Please. I can’t breathe. I can’t relax. You gotta take this mask off, dude. Please.”
“I can’t take it off, sir. I’m sorry.”
“Please. I already told you earlier, I have [expletive] problems, dude.”
“That’s what the medication is for. It’s gonna help calm you down.”
“All right, well, I can’t chill like this. Please take it off, take it off. Aww man, dude. Dude, please take it off, take it off, take it off!”
“Please take the mask off! I cannot breathe. Please.”
James Brown died in custody on July 15, 2012.
“Willie. Willie. Stop!”
“I can’t breathe.”
“I can’t breathe!”
“You can breathe.”
“If you’re talkin’, you’re breathin’. I don’t want to hear it.”
Willie Ray Banks died in custody on Dec. 29, 2011.
“Get cuffs, I got his hands. Get cuffs. Get cuffs.”
“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”
“Yeah, ’cause you’re [expletive] tired of running.”
“OK, I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”
“We’re on VC-71. Code 4. Lift the red. One in custody.”
“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”
Byron Williams died in custody on Sept. 5, 2019.
As the sun began to rise on a sweltering summer morning in Las Vegas last year, a police officer spotted Byron Williams bicycling along a road west of downtown.
The bike did not have a light on it, so officers flipped on their siren and shouted for him to stop. Mr. Williams fled through a vacant lot and over a wall before complying with orders to drop face down in the dirt, where officers used their hands and knees to pin him down. “I can’t breathe,” he gasped. He repeated it 17 times before he later lapsed into unconsciousness and died.
Eric Garner, another black man, had said the same three anguished words in 2014 after a police officer who had stopped him for selling untaxed cigarettes held him in a chokehold on a New York sidewalk. “I can’t breathe,” George Floyd pleaded in May, appealing to the Minneapolis police officer who responded to reports of a phony $20 bill and planted a knee in the back of his neck until his life had slipped away.
Mr. Floyd’s dying words have prompted a national outcry over law enforcement’s deadly toll on African-American people, and they have united much of the country in a sense of outrage that a police officer would not heed a man’s appeal for something as basic as air.
But while the cases of Mr. Garner and Mr. Floyd shocked the nation, dozens of other incidents with a remarkable common denominator have gone widely unacknowledged. Over the past decade, The New York Times found, at least 70 people have died in law enforcement custody after saying the same words — “I can’t breathe.” The dead ranged in age from 19 to 65. The majority of them had been stopped or held over nonviolent infractions, 911 calls about suspicious behavior, or concerns about their mental health. More than half were black.
Dozens of videos, court documents, autopsies and police reports reviewed in these cases — involving a range of people who died in confrontations with officers on the street, in local jails or in their homes — show a pattern of aggressive tactics that ignored prevailing safety precautions while embracing dubious science that suggested that people pleading for air do not need urgent intervention.
In some of the “I can’t breathe” cases, officers restrained detainees by the neck, hogtied them, Tased them multiple times or covered their heads with mesh hoods designed to prevent spitting or biting. Most frequently, officers pushed them face down on the ground and held them prone with their body weight.
Not all of the cases involved police restraints. Some were deaths that occurred after detainees’ protests that they could not breathe — perhaps because of a medical problem or drug intoxication — were discounted or ignored. Some people pleaded for hours for help before they died.
Among those who died after declaring “I can’t breathe” were a chemical engineer in Mississippi, a former real estate agent in California, a meat salesman in Florida and a drummer at a church in Washington State. One was an active-duty soldier who had survived two tours in Iraq. One was a registered nurse. One was a doctor.
In nearly half of the cases The Times reviewed, the people who died after being restrained, including Mr. Williams, were already at risk as a result of drug intoxication. Others were having a mental health episode or medical issues such as pneumonia or heart failure. Some of them presented a significant challenge to officers, fleeing or fighting.
Departments across the United States have banned some of the most dangerous restraint techniques, such as hogtying, and restricted the use of others, including chokeholds, to only the most extreme circumstances — those moments when officers are in fear for their lives. They have for years warned officers about the risks of moves such as facedown compression holds. But the restraints continue to be used as a result of poor training, gaps in policies or the reality that officers sometimes struggle with people who fight hard and threaten to overpower them.
Many of the cases suggest a widespread belief that persists in departments across the country that a person being detained who says “I can’t breathe” is lying or exaggerating, even if multiple officers are using pressure to restrain the person. Police officers, who for generations have been taught that a person who can talk can also breathe, regularly cited that bit of conventional wisdom to dismiss complaints of arrestees who were dying in front of them, records and interviews show.
That dubious claim was photocopied and posted on a bulletin board at the Montgomery County Jail in Dayton, Ohio, in 2018. “If you can talk then you obviously can [expletive] breathe,” the sign said.
Federal officials have long warned about factors that can cause suffocations in custody, and for the past five years, a federal law has required local police agencies to report all in-custody deaths to the Justice Department or face the loss of federal law enforcement funding.
But the Justice Department, under both President Barack Obama and President Trump, has been slow to enforce the law, the agency’s inspector general found in a 2018 report. Though there has been only scattershot reporting by departments, not a single dollar has been withheld.
Autopsies have repeatedly identified links between the actions of officers and the deaths of detainees who struggled for air, even when other medical issues such as heart disease and drug use were contributing or primary factors. But government investigations often found that the detainees were acting erratically or aggressively and that the officers were therefore justified in their actions.
Only a small fraction of officers have faced criminal charges, and almost none have been convicted.
In the case of Mr. Williams in Las Vegas last year, Police Department investigators determined that the officers did not violate the law. But the death triggered immediate changes, said Lt. Erik Lloyd of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s force investigations team.
Officers are not medical doctors and may believe that someone who says “I can’t breathe” may be trying to escape, he said.
To alleviate potential dangers, officers are told now to promptly get detainees off their stomachs and onto their sides — or up to a sitting or standing position. They are also told to call for medical help if someone has distressed breathing.
“Since the death of Mr. Williams, our department has been extremely aware of someone saying, ‘I can’t breathe,’” Lieutenant Lloyd said. “We have changed the attitude of patrol officers.”
For the relatives of many of the men and women who died under similar circumstances in police custody, watching the video of Mr. Floyd’s arrest in Minneapolis has felt painfully familiar. Silvia Soto’s husband, Marshall Miles, died in 2018 in Sacramento County, Calif., after being pinned down by sheriff’s deputies at a jail. She said she had been feeling both heartbroken and comforted amid the national outrage.
“I don’t feel alone anymore,” Ms. Soto said.
‘You want to kill me?’
While there have been dozens of “I can’t breathe” deaths over the past decade, the emergence of body cameras and surveillance footage has eliminated the invisibility that once shrouded many of these deaths.
Videos from Mr. Garner’s death galvanized changes in neck restraint policies around the country, but problematic techniques for restraining people did not go away. In the six years since then, more than 40 people have died after warning, “I can’t breathe.”
Less than three months after Mr. Garner died, police officers went out to a tidy stucco home near Glendale, Ariz., to investigate a report of a couple arguing.
The officers found Balantine Mbegbu seated in a leather chair with his dinner. Both Mr. Mbegbu and his wife assured them that no argument had taken place. According to police reports, Mr. Mbegbu became indignant when they refused to leave.
“Why are you guys here?” he said, his voice rising. “You want to kill me?”
When he tried to stand, the officers slammed him to the floor, punched him in the head and shot him with a Taser. With Mr. Mbegbu on his stomach, officers put knees on his back and neck.
As his wife, Ngozi Mbegbu, watched them pile on top of her husband, she heard him say, “I can’t breathe. I’m dying,” according to a sworn statement she made. Records show he vomited, began foaming at the mouth, stopped breathing and was pronounced dead.
The county prosecutor’s office determined that “the officers did not commit any act that warrants criminal prosecution.”
Cases in which detainees protested that they could not breathe, before dying, continued to occur. Their words could be heard on audio or video recordings, or were otherwise documented in official witness statements or reports.
In 2015, Calvon Reid died in Coconut Creek, Fla., after officers fired 10 shots at him with a Taser.
In 2016, Fermin Vincent Valenzuela was asphyxiated after police officers in Anaheim, Calif., put him in a neck hold while trying to arrest him. His family won a $13 million jury verdict.
In 2017, Hector Arreola died in Columbus, Ga., after officers forced him to the ground, cuffed his hands behind him and leaned on his back, with one officer brushing off his complaints: “He’s fine,” he said.
In 2018, Cristobal Solano was arrested in Tustin, Calif., and then died after at least seven deputies worked together to subdue him on the floor of a holding cell, some with their knees on his back.
In 2019, Vicente Villela died in an Albuquerque jail after telling guards who were holding him down with their knees that he could not breathe. “Right, because they’re having to hold you down,” one of the guards said.
Then last week, the Police Department in Tucson, Ariz., released video of an encounter on April 21 with Carlos Ingram Lopez, who was naked and behaving erratically when officers forced him to lie face down on the floor of a garage with his hands handcuffed behind his back. Part of the time, Mr. Lopez’s head was covered with a blanket and a hood. He was held down for 12 minutes, crying for air, for water and for his grandmother. Then he, too, died.
‘If you can talk you can breathe’
One of the reasons such cases keep occurring may be the persistent belief on the part of police officers that a detainee who is complaining that he cannot breathe is breathing enough to talk.
Edward Flynn, the former police chief in Milwaukee, said in a deposition in 2014 that this idea was once part of training for officers there and persisted as a “common understanding” even if it was wrong. Other departments have told their officers the same thing, records show, and the notion shows up often in interactions with detainees.
“If you’re talking, you’re breathing — I don’t want to hear it,” a sheriff’s deputy told Willie Ray Banks, who was struggling for air after officers in Granite Shoals, Texas, restrained and Tased him in 2011.
But the medical facts are more complicated. While it may technically be true that someone speaking is passing air through the windpipe, Dr. Carl Wigren, an independent pathologist, said that even someone able to mutter a phrase such as “I can’t breathe” may not be able to take the full breaths needed to take in sufficient oxygen to maintain life.
The “if you can talk” notion has persisted even in places like the jail in Montgomery County, Ohio, which had to pay a $3.5 million settlement last year in connection with the 2012 death of an inmate named Robert Richardson, who had been jailed for failing to show up for a child support hearing.
A fellow inmate called for help after Mr. Richardson, 28, had what was described as a possible seizure. Sheriff’s deputies cuffed his hands behind his back and restrained him face down on the floor, pushing on his back and shoulders, and eventually on his head and neck, according to court documents.
Witnesses said Mr. Richardson repeatedly told deputies he could not breathe, until, after 22 minutes, he stopped moving. He was pronounced dead less than an hour later.
It was that jail facility where, six years later, the photocopied sign about being able to breathe if you could talk was posted on the bulletin board.
‘We literally had to sit there and watch my brother die’
Police officers often failed to seek prompt medical attention when a detainee expressed problems breathing, and that has proved to be a factor in several deaths. In some of these cases, the person in custody had recently been Tased or restrained, but other times they were suffering from acute disorders, such as lung infections, and languished for hours. Often, this appeared to be because officers did not take the detainees’ claims seriously.
When 40-year-old Rodney Brown told police officers in Cleveland he could not breathe after being Tased multiple times during a struggle in 2010, one of them responded: “So? Who gives a [expletive]?”
One of the police officers radioed for paramedics but later said he did so only because it was a required procedure when someone had been Tased; he did not convey that Mr. Brown had claimed he could not breathe.
A lawyer for the city in that case told a panel of judges that the officers did not have the medical expertise to know when someone was in a medical crisis or simply exhausted from a vigorous fight, according to an audio recording.
Another troubling case occurred in March 2019 when the police in Montebello, Calif., were called to the home of David Minassian, 39, a former vice president at a property management firm who had suffered a heroin overdose.
His older sister, Maro Minassian, a certified emergency medical technician, had given her brother a dose of naloxone, a medication that reverses the effects of opiate overdoses. He jolted awake but still appeared to have fluid in his lungs, and she dialed 911, anxious to get him to a hospital.
But it was the police, not paramedics, who arrived next. Ms. Minassian said three Montebello officers entered her family’s home as her brother was flailing on the floor.
At least two of the officers slammed him to the ground and put their knees into his back as they tried to cuff him, Ms. Minassian said, and remained on top of him until he stopped talking. “I told them, ‘My brother can’t breathe,’” Ms. Minassian said through tears. “We literally had to sit there and watch my brother die.”
‘Please take the mask off’
Despite years of concerns about some of the potentially dangerous techniques used to subdue people in custody, law enforcement agents have continued to use them.
In the 2018 case involving Ms. Soto’s husband, Marshall Miles, officers struggled to get him into jail after arresting him on suspicion of vandalism and public intoxication.
The Sheriff’s Department had produced training materials as early as 2004 warning about the dangers of suffocation when people were restrained face down or hogtied with their hands and feet linked behind their backs.
But those warnings apparently went unheeded. Mr. Miles, 36, was hogtied while being brought in by the California Highway Patrol, even though the Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail, no longer allowed the restraint. Deputies removed him from the hogtie but held him face down for more than 15 minutes as he repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.” They then carried him handcuffed and shackled to a cell, where at least three deputies put their weight on his facedown body while he groaned ever more faintly. About two minutes later, he fell silent and then stopped breathing, according to video of the death.
Sacramento Sheriff Media Bureau
An autopsy concluded that he died from a combination of physical exertion, mixed drug intoxication and restraint by law enforcement. Hogtie restraints were used in four other deaths over the past decade that were examined by The Times.
Another technique used in a series of cases with fatal outcomes, including at least two this year, has been the use of hoods or masks designed to prevent people from spitting on or biting officers. Law enforcement agencies around the world have grappled with whether to use them to protect officers despite concerns about whether the masks are safe.
Video from 2012 shows how one of the masks was used on James W. Brown, an Army sergeant stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso who had a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Sergeant Brown, 26, was supposed to serve a two-day sentence at the county jail for a drunken-driving conviction, but officials said he became aggressive after learning he would be jailed longer.
With his hands cuffed behind him, Sergeant Brown can be seen in a video seated in a chair, surrounded by guards in riot gear holding him down. Deputies had placed a mesh-style mask over the lower half of his face, and he wore it for more than five minutes before telling the guards and a medical worker that he could not breathe.
“Please take the mask off,” Sergeant Brown pleads. “I cannot breathe. Please!”
El Paso Sheriff’s Dept.
He passed out shortly afterward, and he was pronounced dead the next day. A county autopsy ruled that his death was caused by a sickle-cell crisis — natural causes — but a forensic pathologist later hired by the county concluded that his blood condition had been exacerbated by the restraint procedures.
Sergeant Brown’s relatives sued El Paso County, the jail and 10 officers for wrongful death and other claims. The case was later settled.
“I feel like they treated him like he was less than an animal,” said Sergeant Brown’s mother, Dinetta Scott. “Who treats somebody like that?”