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Anton Black's death was tragic — and preventable

Graphic warning: Video depicts a fatal confrontation with police. Greensboro Police Department body-worn camera footage of Anton Black's arrest and subsequent cardiac arrest. Video courtesy of Greensboro PD

There are several dozen fatalities in the U.S. each year associated with the use of Tasers, restrictive police holds and arrest injuries. Most of these deaths occur in agitated, delirious, often intoxicated males who die of cardiac arrhythmias while in a hyperadrenergic — essentially, highly stressed — state.

The common theme in a large majority of these cases is that police officers have not attempted recommended “de-escalation” strategies. Police in Greensboro, Md., are among the latest examples. They appear to have failed to even try to de-escalate an encounter with Anton Black, a 19-year-old man who ultimately died in their custody in September after being Tasered and restrained.

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His death was tragic — and entirely preventable.

The officer who chased after and caught up to Black, who ran after being confronted, could have then paused to catch his breath and consider the situation: Black had locked himself in the family car, police backup may have been available to surround the car and to work with Black’s mother to talk the young man into giving himself up.

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From my review of “in custody” and Taser deaths in the U.S., I can say that what happened to Black appears to be sadly typical. The factors in this case — an agitated flight by a frightened young man; Taser use and a physical fight, impaired respirations with face down restraints and being pinned down — led to a sudden cardiac death.

The medical examiner ruled in a report made public last week that Black’s “sudden cardiac death” was accidental and due to an underlying heart condition along with the “stress of the struggle” and a mental illness. The report also claimed that “no evidence was found that restraint led to the decedent being asphyxiated.” I don’t see how such a determination could possibly be made.

Attorneys for the family of the teenager who died in police custody last September on Maryland's Eastern Shore have released a statement and copy of the autopsy report.

The police video appears to show Black to have been pinned down by a very heavy officer while handcuffed and shackled face-down during a several minute period when he became still and then unresponsive. This is similar to “hogtie” restraint positioning in which cuffed arms and shackled legs are tied together from the back. Hogtie restraint has been banned in most major police jurisdictions due to risks for asphyxiation. Agitated and obese individuals are at increased risk.

The source for “in custody” deaths like Black’s is well documented. Restrained, hyperactive persons often develop a very severe metabolic acidosis which may be associated with sudden death. Respiratory compensation with rapid, deep breathing is critical for correcting this acidosis. Black appeared to have suffered a form of restraint asphyxiation, or “compression asphyxiation”; i.e. he was restrained and pinned, face-down, and was unable to compensate with his breathing for his acidosis, leading to sudden cardiac death.

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In Maryland, police de-escalation training and training in handling mental health cases is required, but there are no minimum hours of training or a policy on training updates. The Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions should be directed to conduct a state-wide training update, specifying that officers receive a certain number of hours of training in de-escalation techniques, techniques for handling mental health emergencies and on ways to reduce risks for restraint asphyxiation. This could include role-playing exercises and simulators using cases like Black’s.

Greensboro Police Chief Mike Petyo provided a link Thursday night to The Baltimore Sun of police body-camera footage from the fatal encounter between police and 19-year-old Anton Black on Sept. 15.

Several large cities, including New York and Dallas, have demonstrated marked reductions in in-custody deaths after implementing de-escalation training. Seattle, additionally, has trained paramedic ambulance responses to assist police officers in conflict resolution involving individuals with mental health issues and delirium/intoxication states.

Limiting the use of Tasers was recommended a decade ago by the “Task force on electronic weapons” convened by the Maryland Attorney General’s office.

“Use-of-force policies should strive to balance the risks of ECW [electronic control weapon] use against the actual threat of harm against an officer or another individual,” that 2009 report said. “To that end, the Task Force recommends that ECW use should be permitted only when an individual’s actions pose an imminent threat of physical harm to themselves or others.”

In Greensboro, residents describe a town divided since the death of an African-American teenager in police custody.

Are there instances where “take downs” and Taser use is justified, to protect an officer or a third party and obviate the need for deadly force? No doubt.

But many other times, police officers escalate situations unnecessarily when incapacitating holds or these devices are employed.

Lives could be saved if officers simply took a breath to think and put de-escalation training to use.

Dr. Gregory Krauss (gkrauss@jhmi.edu) is a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University.

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