Key findings from AP’s investigation into police force that isn’t supposed to be lethal

Mar 28, 2024, 7:10 PM

Associated Press investigation into lethal police force...

In this image from Bristol Police Department body-camera video, Austin Hunter Turner, 23, lies restrained face down in an ambulance in Bristol, Tenn., on Aug. 29, 2017. (Bristol Police Department via AP)

(Bristol Police Department via AP)

Every day, police in the U.S. rely on common use-of-force tactics that, unlike guns, are meant to stop people without killing them. But when misused, these tactics can still end in death. This Associated Press investigation has unveiled key insights about this topic.

Over a decade, more than 1,000 people died after police subdued them through physical holds, stun guns, body blows and other means not intended to be lethal, an investigation led by The Associated Press found. In hundreds of cases, officers weren’t taught or didn’t follow best safety practices for this force, creating a recipe for death.

Medical officials cited law enforcement as causing or contributing to about half of the deaths. In many others, significant police force went unmentioned and drugs or preexisting health problems were blamed instead.

These cases included George Floyd, whose 2020 death under the body weight of an officer sparked a national reckoning over policing. And while Floyd’s encounter happened to be caught on video, capturing his last words of “I can’t breathe,” many others throughout the United States have escaped notice.

Key takeaways from Associated Press investigation into police force

Here are takeaways from the AP’s investigation done in collaboration with the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism programs at the University of Maryland and Arizona State University, and FRONTLINE (PBS):

Who was affected?

The deadly encounters happened just about everywhere, according to an analysis of a database AP created. Big cities, suburbs and rural America. Red states and blue states. Restaurants, assisted-living centers and, most commonly, in or near the homes of those who died.

The deceased came from all walks of life — a poet, a nurse, a saxophone player in a mariachi band, a truck driver, a sales director, a rodeo clown and even a few off-duty law enforcement officers.

All but 3% of the dead were men. Most tended to be in their 30s and 40s. The youngest was just 15, the oldest 95.

The toll, however, disproportionately fell on Black Americans. They made up a third of those who died despite representing only 12% of the U.S. population.

Others feeling the brunt were those impaired by a medical, mental health or drug emergency, a group particularly susceptible to force even when lightly applied.

If incidents turn chaotic and officers make split-second decisions to use force, “people do die,” said Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former Baltimore police officer. “The only way to get down to zero is to get rid of policing,” he added, “and that’s not going to save lives either.”

How force began

When the force came, it could be sudden and extreme. Other times, the force was minimal, and yet the people nevertheless died, sometimes from a drug overdose or a combination of factors.

In about 30% of the cases, police were intervening to stop people who were injuring others or who posed a threat of danger. But roughly 25% of those who died were threatening no one or, at most, committing minor infractions, AP’s review of cases shows. The rest involved other non-violent situations with people who police said were trying to resist arrest or flee.

What led up to the force was sometimes unclear. In more than 100 cases, police either withheld key details or witnesses disputed the officer’s account — and body-camera footage didn’t exist to help add clarity.

Best practices not always followed, Associated Press investigation finds

In hundreds of cases, officers repeated errors that experts and trainers have spent years trying to eliminate. Perhaps the best example is how officers were warned that holding someone facedown in what is known as prone restraint is dangerous.

Many policing experts agree that someone can stop breathing if pinned on their chest for too long or with too much weight, and the Department of Justice has issued warnings to that effect since 1995.

Reporters identified dozens and dozens of cases in which officers disregarded people who told them they were struggling for air or even about to die, often uttering the words, “I can’t breathe.” But with no standard national rules, what police are taught about the risks of prone restraint is often left to the states and individual departments.

Some officers involved in fatalities testified they had been assured that prone position was never deadly, AP found, while many others were trained to roll people onto their sides to aid breathing and simply failed to do so.

Officers were usually cleared by their departments in internal investigations. The AP investigation identified just 28 deaths where officers ended up charged by prosecutors.

Feds don’t keep count very well

The AP and its partners focused on local police, sheriff’s deputies and other officers patrolling the streets or responding to dispatch calls. Reporters filed nearly 7,000 requests for government documents and body-camera footage, receiving more than 700 autopsy reports or death certificates, and uncovering video in at least four dozen cases that has never been published or widely distributed.

Those records led them to identify at least 1,036 deaths after police had used what is known as “less-lethal force” during the decade of 2012 through 2021 — an average of two a week.

The federal government, for its part, has struggled for years and years to count these deaths.

Congress started trying to get the Justice Department to do so in 2000. The department has acknowledged its data is incomplete, blames spotty reporting from police departments, and does not make whatever information exists publicly available.

Mortality data maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has gaps. The AP found that when a death certificate does not list words such as “police” and “law enforcement,” the CDC’s language-reading software doesn’t label the death as involving “legal intervention.” This means the death data flagged police involvement in, at most, 34% of the deaths the investigation identified.

Because the country has no clear idea how many people die like this and why, meaningful reforms will remain difficult, said Dr. Roger Mitchell Jr., a leader in the push to improve tracking and one of the nation’s few Black chief medical examiners when he held the office in Washington, D.C., from 2014 to 2021.

“Any time anyone dies before their day in court, or dies in an environment where the federal government or the local government’s job is to take care of you,” he said, “it needs transparency. It cannot be in the dark of night.”

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Key findings from AP’s investigation into police force that isn’t supposed to be lethal