By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
As a result, in both the Stelley and Caldwell cases, family members anguished, wondering why their loved ones had died. In both cases, documents containing the answers were kept secret for months -- and the anguish of survivors was prolonged.
Last week I finally obtained the medical examiner's report on Caldwell, the shoplifting suspect who died Dec. 3 in police custody after complaining he couldn't breathe. As I described in a previous column, police held Caldwell in a "hobble" device, a controversial leg restraint, the misuse of which has been blamed in suffocation deaths around the country.
For two months police would not say exactly how the hobble device had been employed in this case, even though -- or perhaps because -- this information was crucial to determining whether department policy allowing use of the device had led to Caldwell's death. Family members and the rest of the public were left to speculate as to how Caldwell really died. His mother, as I reported earlier, had nightmares that he had been lynched.
As it turns out, Caldwell died of "restrictive asphyxiation," according to the medical examiner's report; that is to say, it does appear that the method police used to restrain him caused him to suffocate. But in the final analysis, S.F. Medical Examiner Boyd Stephens says, use of the hobble device didn't kill Caldwell. Police didn't hogtie Caldwell, as has been the case in suffocation deaths in other cities where the hobble device was misused. Rather, Caldwell died because he was left on his stomach, gasping for air with his hands handcuffed behind his back. The fact that Caldwell had large amounts of cocaine in his system, and that he had been engaged in an exhausting struggle with officers, made this body position particularly deadly.
"If he were sitting up, or even on his back, he may have gotten enough air. His position, in our judgment, does play a part in his death, and does play a significant part. We put the asphyxiation first, and linked it to the cocaine," says Stephens, who examined a security video of the incident. "He's face down. He's a heavy person. His breathing is restricted in the struggle."
So Caldwell's death becomes less a debate on use of a controversial restraint device, and more a question of how, precisely, police should temper their use of force. Police frequently find themselves needing to subdue powerful, violent, large criminal suspects without getting hurt themselves; handcuffing behind the back has a long, successful track record in this area. And it's nearly impossible to handcuff a violent person behind his back without throwing him on his stomach.
In the case of Gregory Caldwell, police didn't seem to realize when the fight was over. After he was fully restrained, Caldwell told officers he couldn't breathe. Apparently, police didn't believe him. One officer even told Caldwell he'd be allowed to get up if he stopped struggling.
"It's my understanding that they said, "When you stop fighting, we'll let you up.' But when a person is struggling for air, it's hard for him to stop fighting," Stephens says.
Ideally, San Francisco residents might join a public discussion of the appropriate way to educate police in the use of restraint against violent suspects, so that police don't inadvertently kill. This is the type of subtle, two-sided discussion that democracy, and its incumbent public information laws, routinely handles with aplomb.
Unfortunately, the SFPD appears wary of this process, preferring secrecy to debate. In other cities, police-restraint deaths lead to extensive press coverage, public outrage, public discussion, and police reform. In San Francisco, SF Weekly is the only paper that's reported on Caldwell's death. Police withheld public documents on the case for two months, while the department's public information department offered statements apparently intended to mislead.
The SFPD public information office appears to have perfected a good cop/bad cop routine for cases such as Gregory Caldwell's. Good cop press officers congenially offer that it's up to homicide inspectors to release information; inspectors don't return calls. Good cop press officers say the City Attorney's Office has told them to suppress documents, when the City Attorney's Office has clearly given no such instructions.
Outside San Francisco, human rights activists pour massive effort into truth commissions, atrocity investigations, and forensic studies of DNA, so that citizens might make better sense of their world, then improve it. The case of Gregory Caldwell suggests that it's high time for San Francisco's Police Department to join this effort by releasing information pertaining to officer-involved deaths in a timely and transparent fashion.