In my early twenties, a time in which I felt profoundly lost and in which feeling profoundly lost was still novel, a man I owed a great deal to and loved profoundly asked me to work at his law firm. He framed it in a way that allowed me to feel valued instead of unfortunate and deserving of pity, in probably the only way that could work: He asked me to work on a single case.
It was the early 2000’s, which feels like another epoch. That’s a feeling, and not a well-reasoned one. Little has changed between now and then, other than me and my orientation toward time, place and possibility.
The particular case was a civil suit against several police agencies for an in-custody death, coincident with a suit against a manufacturer of ‘less lethal’ weapons for use by law enforcement.
The circumstances of the event were routine. A man experiencing a mental health crisis, which for most people is simply ‘a bad day’, encountered police, who beat, tased and hog-tied him, then sat on his back, and pepper sprayed him. He stopped breathing. His heart stopped beating. He stopped asking them to stop.
On my first day of work I attended a hearing on the matter. Upon first examination, a courtroom is a long way away from a murder. It spackles over the obviousness of the event. A courtroom is, in some ways, one of the most haunted places in American life. All of the past is swirling around in there, both in the matter at hand, but in terms of precedent as well. When someone is killed by police and the murder is adjudicated in a court of law, all police murders are screaming to be heard, and all the justifications of the past keep us from hearing them.
The man’s mother was there. She looked exactly like you’d expect: Utterly overwhelmed and completely robbed. Whether there was meaning left in the world for her, I don’t know, but I thought that she was a person I could do something for.
I was terrified at the prospect of working in an office. It wasn’t a thing I’d done before, and I felt very exposed, but I also had this very important thing I was doing and it helped orient me. I got out the file boxes and started digging through them. There’s a feeling in your fingers when you spend a great deal of time looking at paper, a slippery dryness, and there’s a feeling in your sinuses when you work indoors in winter, which is another slippery dryness. I remember those feelings very clearly.
In those boxes were exactly what you’d expect. Police reports, medical examiners findings, the victim’s psychiatric records as his life took him through several bureaucratic turnovers in the systems that serve those of us whose unhappiness is inconvenient.
The medical records were to prepare for and counter the inevitable defense that attorneys for police raise, which is that the decedent brought about their own death by some magical transference of any mistakes in their lives to their last thirty seconds when their face was being ground into asphalt.
The other, specific reason for reviewing these records was to prepare for what is a tried and true alternative mechanism of death offered by medical examiners when a person dies in police custody, that being ‘excited delirium’, in which a person essentially scares them self to death, somehow legally distant from the fact that they were being suffocated, shocked and beaten at the same time.
There’s a horror in examining these kinds of records, a sense that the physicians writing them firmly believe that the person under their care doesn’t know what’s good for them. But the physician’s myopia is profound, because they fail to recognize the fact that they don’t know what’s good for them either. It’s paternalism without any feeling of responsibility.
At this point it feels necessary to say that this man’s name was David and his life couldn’t be understood by looking through those files. He loved his mother. He played guitar. He kept Jesus close to his heart. He suffered terribly, because of things that were beyond his ability to control. I wish that I had the opportunity to meet him. Who knows? Maybe I will.
The autopsy photos were exactly what autopsy photos are. They are unpleasant to look at. But in this instance the things that draw the eye aren’t the things to pay attention to. It was necessary to ignore the incisions and standard insults of an autopsy. Instead, bruises and scrapes on the face and knees were the things to see, because they communicated that he was on the ground, trying to breathe. As well, there were bruises on his back, where knees and boots made breathing impossible. And, those little puncture wounds that are left by a Taser.
We had two eyewitness accounts in our records, and both included a strange detail.
The first was from a man parked at an elevated position to the incident. He watched it play out- David was pulled to the ground by a group of five police officers and was restrained by all present. At a certain point, the female officer went from kneeling, to standing, to running.
The second was related by a nurse in the emergency room. The victim was handcuffed to the gurney, unresponsive with no pulse. The female officer was weeping, the witness said, but refused to remove the handcuffs.
It took me a month to realize that the officer had been pepper spraying the victim while he was restrained, and that the wind had kicked up and sent the cloud back into her face. So, not a moment of humanity or remorse in the face of the realization that she had killed another human being, just a taste of her own medicine.
As well, there was a discrepancy in the time that passed between the arrival of the ambulance at the scene and its arrival at the hospital. At some point along the way the vehicle had stopped, or gone in a circle, or something, with no clear outcome other than it had eliminated any possibility of resuscitation.
I continued digging through the file, realizing over and over and over again how extensive a conspiracy is required to deny the naked, obvious fact that it was this man’s encounter with the police that led to his death. It takes a massive apparatus of power to maintain a monopoly on violence- it requires doctors, EMTs, numerous police agencies, a court system and all the factors that cause the everyday bystander to question their responsibilities and perpetrate their silence.
I moved on to other things in my life after a time- other fluorescent lights, other HVAC systems, other bad cups of coffee. I moved away. I moved back. I took the time to see where the case stood, eight years later, and I learned that it had, despite many people’s best efforts, become another instance in which a person’s inconvenience to a police agency was a justifiable premise on which to kill them.
Years after the suit was first filed, one of the defendant officers launched his own suit against the police department, alleging that he had been ordered to murder David. It was in this rare moment that I had some sympathy for him. He did commit murder. It is undeniable. Part of his terrible crime involved failing to recognize how toxic authority can be, the cardinal sin of the adult child, and how, by submitting to it, we sacrifice our humanity. It was an instance in which I became aware of two things. The first, that there can, maybe, be decent people who are also cops. The second, that decent people who are cops become former cops in short order.
The suit was dismissed in 2013. Toxic and conspiratorial authority won another of its countless battles for the maintenance of its impunity.
Throughout 2020, as the uprisings against police violence erupted, I thought of this man, who died when he was younger than I am now, and I think about Freddy Gray and his ‘rough ride’ at the hands of Baltimore police, and I think of George Floyd, dying with a knee in his back, or Eric Garner, also choked to death in broad daylight. I think of all these people, killed in the clear light of day, killed lazily and incompetently by people who care little about how history will remember them.
And of all the trite things to realize, I do realize that there is kindness and love, somewhere under all of this. That there is gentleness. That it is imperative that kindness and love and gentleness win, and win decisively. I want that world.