The Potluck

New research questions safety of restraining people face down 

By: - October 12, 2021 11:59 am

Former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes in May, killing him.

The safety of restraining suspects by putting them in a prone position — face down — with weight on their chest is coming under increasing scrutiny, according to the New York Times

A leading medical journal published a new study that found that fatal police violence is frequently misclassified, and Alon Steinberg, chief of cardiology at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, Calif., recently published a paper on prone restraint and cardiac arrest, the Times reported.

Police accused of excessive force — including former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes — often lean on the studies to defend their use of the position. 

Maryland’s retired chief medical examiner-turned-consultant, Dr. David Fowler, testified during Chauvin’s trial that he wouldn’t rule George Floyd’s death a homicide, citing studies concluding that prone restraint doesn’t cause asphyxia. He instead blamed fentanyl and methamphetamine in Floyd’s system; his exposure to exhaust from the squad car tailpipe and a paraganglioma tumor (which are usually benign) discovered during Floyd’s autopsy. 

During cross examination, Fowler acknowledged none of the studies he testified about involved a knee to the neck for nine minutes, 29 seconds, as in Floyd’s case.

The University of California San Diego studies often cited by medical examiners sprang out of the defense of sheriff’s deputies involved in a fatality, according to the Times

During the trial, Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, repeatedly brought up studies concluding prone restraint is safe. 

But prosecution witness Dr. Martin Tobin, a pulmonary and critical care doctor from Illinois, called the studies misleading. He said no study has been done where weight was put on a person’s neck while prone, saying that’d be tough to get approved by a medical school’s ethics department. He has researched breathing since 1981 and written books on respiration, including what The Lancet medical journal calls “the Bible on mechanical ventilation.”

Prosecution experts were also critical of one of the studies Nelson cited because it used young, healthy volunteers on a gym mat in a situation where they weren’t fearful for their lives.

Fowler has come under fire after state data showed that 30% of Maryland deaths involving police between 2013 and 2019 were classified by his office as “accidents,” “undetermined,” or due to “natural causes.” He’s being sued in Maryland by the family of Anton Black, who died under similar circumstances as Floyd. Fowler ruled Black’s death an accident.  

A KARE11 investigation found at least 107 people nationwide have died while held prone by police since 2010.  

The U.S. Department of Justice warned police about the risk of prone restraint in 1995, saying  “As soon as the suspect is handcuffed, get him off his stomach.” 

The city of Minneapolis agreed to train police on the dangers of positional asphyxia as part of a $3 million settlement following the 2010 death of David Smith, who was pinned face down for minutes, according to ABC News. MPD witnesses testified during Chauvin’s trial that officers are trained to put people on their sides once they’re handcuffed.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.