Freddie Gray recently died in custody after being arrested by the Baltimore Police Department. The reported cause of death in this highly controversial and publicized matter is a “spinal cord injury.” It remains unclear how this injury occurred. However, it is well-recognized that a number of police takedowns can result in spinal cord injuries, depending on factors such as: (1) the body mechanics of the takedown technique; (2) the speed, force, and direction of the takedown; and (3) the environment/surface where the takedown occurred.
Officers are trained to protect the head and neck of a subject they employ takedown maneuvers on. If an officer does not and a serious injury occurs, a question will arise as to why they could not reasonably protect the subject’s head or neck during the maneuver. This will necessarily require an analysis under the Supreme Court’s decision in Graham v. Connor, where the court considers: (1) the severity of the crime at issue; (2) whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others; and (3) whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989). Even though a forceful takedown may be warranted in some circumstances, it does not mean that takedown is always appropriate. See Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 11 (1985) (“The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable.”).
The New York City Police Department recently addressed a somewhat similar issue in the chokehold death of Eric Garner. As noted by an unnamed law enforcement official:
“Before this [Garner’s death], the NYPD approach was, more or less, just pile on … But we are giving officers other skill sets to use for non-threatening situations that will both protect them and the public.”
Murray Weiss, “NYPD Trains Officers on New Takedown Methods that Avoid Chokeholds,” www.DNAinfo.com (March 2, 2015). The NYPD is now focusing on additional de-escalation techniques and maneuvers that allow officers to avoid contact with a subject’s neck.
Regardless of how Mr. Gray’s death occurred, one would hope that the Baltimore Police Department already instructs its officers on takedowns and other uses of force that keep both its officers and citizens safe — particularly, as it relates to protecting a subject’s head and neck. This will almost certainly be an area of inquiry during any subsequent Section 1983 claim brought on behalf of Mr. Gray’s next of kin.