Many baffling, unbelievable — and laughable, if it weren’t such a tragedy — conclusions came out of the autopsy and investigation into the death of Anton Black while in police custody in Greensboro four months ago.
Perhaps the most glaring was the apparent mental health diagnosis by one of the police officers trying to arrest Black on a vague suspicion of kidnapping. Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman reviewed body camera video screened for the media Wednesday and reported hearing an officer declaring the teenager had a mental health issue. When did police officers get into the business of making such a diagnosis? And within mere minutes of interacting with a suspect, at that? Not even a psychiatrist could simply look at a patient and make such a determination.
Was the officer somehow throwing this self-determined diagnosis out into the universe to justify the aggressive pursuit he was about to make to arrest the 19-year-old? As if it somehow would provide cover if something were to go wrong; like if the teenager were hurt or even died? If the the officer really thought Black was experiencing some kind of emotional episode, he should have been trying to de-escalate the situation rather than further inflame it.
Yet the reactions of all three officers involved in the pursuit were wrong from the start, resulting in the death of a young man who never should have been arrested at all.
The story, which began after a woman called 911 to report a man kidnapping a child, is etched in the minds of the family he left behind, who said in a statement they are far from satisfied with the results of the investigation. Neither are we.
The child, who turned out to be a cousin, never told officers he was afraid of being kidnapped, according to a police report. Still, the officers ordered Black to place his hands behind his back because of what a stranger on a 911 call thought she saw from afar.
Mr. Black ran for reasons that only he would know. Maybe he was scared of what would happen to him in a justice system that has failed African-American men more times than we can count. One of the arresting officers, Thomas Webster IV, doesn’t have the best reputation for dealing with African-Americans, having been indicted for kicking a black man in the head and breaking his jaw at his last job in Delaware. Although Officer Webster was later found not guilty of a crime, the local government there paid a large settlement to the victim, and residents of Greensboro protested his hiring to no avail.
And the fact that Black ran was no justification for such aggression by the police. As a lawyer for his family pointed out, it’s not against the law to run from police when you didn’t commit a crime.
The state medical examiner’s office has ruled Black’s death by cardiac arrest an accident, claiming the young man had a congenital heart defect that police didn’t know about. The autopsy said no evidence was found that restraint by law enforcement directly caused or significantly contributed to his death.
That lets the police off way too easy. Even without the meticulous cataloging of the 43 cuts, bruises and abrasions on Black’s body that his family’s attorneys compiled from the autopsy, we can say that had police done their jobs responsibly, he would be alive.
Chased to the mobile home park where he lives, Black tried to get inside his home, but finding it locked, got into a car parked out front. An officer smashed the car window and tried to subdue him with a taser to the buttocks. Officers and a bystander tackled him to the ground and restrained his legs. None of this was necessary to protect the officers or the public. The report states that it is unclear if the taser had an effect, but if Brown had a heart defect as the autopsy claims, it very well could have.
Attorneys for Black’s family also point out that under the “eggshell skull” doctrine, police are responsible for anyone they wrongfully injure who is “vulnerable to injury.” The weakness of a victim, such as a heart defect, cannot be used as a defense.
At another point in the video, an officer asserts that Black was on drugs. He wasn’t, according to the autopsy. Do Greensboro police automatically assume every young African-American man they meet is high? It’s all part of a dehumanization of Black that is is perhaps best illustrated by one one of the officers when he calls his chief to say the incident “turned into a real show.”
The case now goes to the Caroline County state’s attorney, who will decide whether to press charges. The family said in a statement they want a grand jury to look into the case. We also urge for the case to be moved to the state’s attorney office of another jurisdiction. In addition, federal authorities need to conduct a civil rights investigation.
We see why county and town officials dragged their feet for four months before releasing the results of the autopsy and video footage. After political pressure, most notably from Gov. Larry Hogan, police held a news conference Wednesday to help the community better understand the circumstances around Black’s death.
We better understand, all right. We understand that Black’s death was totally unnecessary and that no one has yet been held truly accountable.
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