The police body camera video showing officers chasing, Tasering and subduing Anton Black “is painful even to watch,” the ACLU of Maryland said Friday, calling for an independent investigation of the 19-year-old’s death.
Black died after the Sept. 15 encounter in Greensboro on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but it was only Wednesday that officials released the autopsy report and, Thursday night, the video footage of his arrest.
It shows him being chased to his parents’ house, where he got into a parked car whose window an officer shatters with a baton before firing the Taser into Black. After climbing out of the car, Black struggled with and was held down by several officers and a passing motorcyclist as they tried to apply handcuffs and leg shackles. The video shows him going limp and rescue efforts failing to revive him, as his mother and others watch from nearby and the lights of police cars flash red and blue in the darkening night.
The video drew a range of responses, from those who believe it shows officers using excessive force on an unarmed African-American man, to others, including the Greensboro police chief, saying they followed proper procedures.
“The ACLU is deeply troubled by the excessive force and brutality in Anton’s death,” the civil liberties group said in a statement. “At nearly every step in the encounter, the police reacted with greater suspicion and force than necessary, which points to racial bias in the handling of the situation.”
The ACLU also expressed outrage over what it called “the gross delay” in releasing the autopsy report and video footage. Residents in the small Caroline County town and beyond, as well as Gov. Larry Hogan similarly had said investigators needed to make more information public.
“The autopsy was not released until a huge public outcry demanded it — on January 23...,” the statement said. “In addition, the body camera footage was withheld from the family and the public until the massive public outcry demanded it, which included a demand from Governor Larry Hogan.”
The medical examiner’s report concluded that while Black’s body showed more than 40 abrasions and other blunt force trauma injuries, there was no evidence from the video or the officers’ statements to investigators that they had struck him or applied force to his neck. The medical examiner determined Black’s death was accidental, the result of sudden cardiac arrest with contributing factors of an underlying heart issue, a reported mental illness and the stress of the struggle with police.
Black’s family asked the Caroline County State’s Attorney to present the case to a grand jury for investigation and possible indictment, but their request was turned down. State’s Attorney Joseph Riley said there currently is not enough evidence to seek an indictment.
Black's family has said it will conduct an independent review of the evidence. They also are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a civil rights review.
Similarly, the ACLU of Maryland called for the Maryland State Prosecutor or the Justice Department to investigate the death. A spokeswoman for the federal agency said it does not confirm or deny what it is investigating. The state prosecutor’s office did not return a call for comment.
The incident began when a woman called 911 to report a possible kidnapping, and Greensboro Police Officer Thomas Webster IV responded and tried to arrest Black, who instead ran away, prompting the chase that was joined by police from other jurisdictions and a motorcyclist who happened to be passing by.
Greensboro Police Chief Mike Petyo defended the officers’ actions Friday. Petyo said he would not play “Monday morning quarterback” and comment on whether the encounter could have been handled differently, such as by de-escalating the situation.
“It speaks for itself. It shows proper police procedure,” he said. “It shows genuine concern for the decedent.”
“They didn’t go full-out use of force,” Petyo said. “He used a Taser, it wasn’t effective. It didn’t subdue him.”
Webster was not available for comment, Petyo said.
But the Greensboro Police Department manual, available online, limits the situations in which an officers should use a Taser.
“Mere flight from a pursuing officer, without other known circumstances or factors, is not good cause for the use of the TASER to apprehend an individual,” the manual says.
The policy has a checklist for officers, “as time and circumstances permit,” to consider when determining a reasonable amount of force to use, including threat posed, effects of drugs or alcohol, the individual’s mental state and if the person is resisting. Officers are heard on the video saying Black was “schizophrenic” and may have smoked “laced marijuana.” The autopsy report said toxicology tests revealed no drugs in his system.
Ashley Heiberger, a use of force expert who retired from the Bethlehem (Penn.) Police Department after 21 years, said he might not have used a Taser under the circumstances depicted in the video, but largely because of logistical challenges.
Heiberger said a Taser sends an electric current through the targeted person that lasts for five seconds, during which time the officer will try to handcuff them. Given that Black was in a small space — the front seat of a Honda parked outside his family’s home — it would have been hard to handcuff him in that amount of time, Heiberger said.
Heiberger now teaches at Moravian College in Bethlehem and is senior policy adviser at a firm hired to monitor compliance with a federal agreement to reform the Portland, Ore., police’s use of force practices.
He said the Greensboro video did not seem to depict excessive use of force, even though Black was unarmed and the officers at a certain point said they were treating the incident as a mental health emergency rather than an arrest. For either reason, especially if the person is being taken for an involuntary mental health evaluation, the officer has to get handcuffs on, he said.
“We can second-guess all day,” he said. “I didn’t see anything that made me think [officers] unnecessarily jacked this up.”
A police consultant brought in by the public relations firm working with the Greensboro police said he also “did not see anything excessive by any of the officers on there.”
Bill Gleason, a use of force expert who has worked for two decades with Prince George’s County police, said Black was an “active aggressor” during the fluid situation.
“They used a reasonable and necessary amount of force to try and get Mr. Black under control so he could get the medical attention he needed,” Gleason said.
The ACLU however, criticized officers for several statements heard on the video, including about Black’s reported mental health.
“Police also claimed that Anton was schizophrenic without any medical training to make such a diagnosis,” the group’s statement said. “If the police actually believed Anton was having a mental health episode, then beating and tasing him was probably not the approved protocol for dealing with people with mental illness, especially those who are unarmed, cornered, and no imminent danger to themselves or others.”
The group also said it was “disgusted” with a comment Webster made as he called in a brief report while paramedics continued to work on Black. Speaking into a phone, Webster says the chase turned into a fight, the Taser was ineffective.
“It turned into a real show,” Webster said.
The ACLU said it is “disgusted” by the comment, particularly given that Webster, as a Dover, Del., officer, was charged with felony assault after allegedly kicking a suspect in the head in August 2013, knocking him unconscious and breaking his jaw.
He was acquitted by a jury, but resigned from the department in February 2016 and was hired by Greensboro last year.
DeRay Mckesson, the Black Lives Matter activist, said the video, and Riley’s refusal to take the case to a grand jury, shows that police still are not held accountable for deaths in their custody. And, in the past, he said he might have held out hope for a Justice Department civil rights investigation, but the Trump administration, particularly under former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has made it clear it is not in the business of policing the police.
“If the mechanisms of accountability don’t change,” he said, “I don’t know how we can expect outcomes to change.”
Mckesson was surprised to learn Black was 19, and said he looked like a child.
“Him running from the police, it was almost like a skip. It was clear he was not going to get far,” he said. “There was nothing about him that was threatening.
“This,” Mckesson said, “was an avoidable death.”