After a Kansas medical examiner on Monday ruled the death of an unarmed Black teenager in law enforcement custody a homicide, attention has turned once again to a controversial restraint technique that also raised questions after George Floyd’s murder.
Cedric Lofton, 17, died Sept. 26 in Wichita, two days after police responded to a call that described the teen “exhibiting erratic and aggressive behavior” toward his foster family, according to the autopsy report from the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center. While in custody at a juvenile detention center, Lofton’s ankles were placed in shackles, his wrists were handcuffed behind his back, and officers rolled him onto his chest — what’s known as the prone position.
Lofton lost consciousness at the Sedgwick County Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center and never regained consciousness before he died, the report states.
“In my opinion, Cedric Lofton died as a result of complications of cardiopulmonary arrest sustained after physical struggle while restrained in the prone position,” Timothy S. Gorrill, the chief medical examiner, wrote in the report. “The manner of death is homicide.”
The findings contradicted earlier statements from authorities suggesting that Lofton did not suffer life-threatening injuries. No charges have been filed against the handful of juvenile center employees believed to have been involved in restraining the teen. The employees, who’ve yet to be publicly identified, were placed on paid administrative leave pending the results of the investigation conducted by the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office.
The case is the latest to spotlight concerns about the safety of authorities subduing suspects face down. The use of the prone position, which can limit a person’s ability to breathe and receive enough oxygen to the heart and brain, was highlighted in the case of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of murdering Floyd in May 2020. Multiple medical experts testified for the prosecution that Chauvin’s use of the prone position contributed to the Black man’s death. The defense presented research that prone restraint does not lead to death.
Steven Hart, a Chicago attorney representing Lofton’s family, told The Washington Post that authorities “should know from the Floyd case alone” that the prone position can increase the level of risk when someone is in custody.
“That’s what’s equally disturbing. Authorities can’t plausibly suggest that putting someone in prone position is a safe thing to do,” Hart said. “It’s a conscious disregard for safety — and their life.”
Pastor Maurice W. Evans, the spokesman for Lofton’s parents, put it more bluntly: “This position is used to submit an animal. It’s not how you handle a human being.”
Officials with the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections, the officers’ employer, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
In a statement to The Post, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett, R, pointed to research from the National Association of Medical Examiners referencing how “deaths due to positional restraint” don’t necessarily come with an “intent to kill.”
“Contrary to multiple public comments since the release of the autopsy report prepared by the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center, the determination that the manner of death was ‘homicide’ does not reflect a legal determination on the part of the pathologist regarding the viability of criminal charges,” Bennett said in a written statement. “Whether or not criminal charges can be brought is a separate, legal determination to be made by the Office of the District Attorney based on the laws of the State of Kansas and the evidence collected by law enforcement.”
Bennett said the investigation conducted by agents with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office is ongoing. He added that his office anticipates completing its review of the autopsy report by next month.
Officials with the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections, the officers’ employer, declined to comment and shared Bennett’s statement in an email.
Some experts have pushed back in recent months on long-accepted research among law enforcement that’s concluded that prone restraint is safe. In October, Alon Steinberg, chief of cardiology at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, Calif., published a paper for the National Institutes of Health that found that fatal police violence is frequently misclassified, and that previous studies have given authorities a reason to excuse the actions of their officers.
“People are dying all the time, and we’re not doing anything about it,” Steinberg, who has been a consultant in cases against police officers, told The New York Times in October. “I want to shout it out to everyone: Let’s stop this right now.”
The interest surrounding prone position deaths in recent years has intensified after Chauvin’s conviction. A joint investigation by KUSA in Denver and KARE in Minneapolis last year found more than 113 police prone restraint deaths since 2010, which brought about wrongful death payouts totaling $70 million in taxpayer money. Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who is now a law professor at the University of South Carolina, told KUSA in May that “once somebody has been restrained, they should not stay in the prone restraint position.”
“It’s difficult to watch officers continue to make the same mistake,” said Stoughton, who testified in Chauvin’s trial.
Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer who is now a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the challenges surrounding policing have heightened because of waning interest from potential recruits, the inadequate time needed to train officers and the limited physical capacity for officers to take on intense custody situations.
“They are frequently overmatched,” O’Donnell told The Post. “The cops themselves that are frequently involved in using force, when you ask them what they’re doing they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re doing the best they can, that’s what they’re doing.”
When asked about why fatal instances such as Lofton’s, where the prone position is used, are still happening, O’Donnell replied: “I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. We’re lucky it doesn’t happen more often.”
Lofton ran away from his foster care home Sept. 21 before returning around midnight Sept. 24, according to records. It’s unclear why Lofton ran away, but Hart said the teen was in “a mental health crisis.” Upon returning to the foster home, Lofton exhibited “erratic and aggressive behavior,” according to the autopsy report.
Police planned to take Lofton to a “behavioral health unit” at a nearby hospital, the autopsy says, but that changed when the teen allegedly “assaulted one or more of the officers.” Instead, authorities took him to the Sedgwick County Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center, where he was charged with four counts of battery on a law enforcement officer, according to county officials.
After more than 90 minutes in a cell, Lofton was brought to the lobby of the facility at 4:20 a.m. When Lofton became “uncooperative and agitated” and two staff members tried to restrain him, the teen punched one of the employees in the head, according to the report.
At that point, “additional staff members” got involved in detaining Lofton and shackling his ankles, according to the report, which cited video footage of the incident that’s not been made public. As he continued to struggle, Lofton was placed face-down and handcuffed at 5:08 a.m., records show. Lofton reportedly “calmed down” and then “made occasional snoring sounds,” the autopsy states.
But when officials went to check on him just four minutes later, he did not have a pulse. Staff members started chest compressions and called emergency services to help Lofton regain consciousness. He was pronounced dead at a hospital two days later.
The autopsy also found that Lofton, who Hart said weighed 135 pounds “soaking wet,” had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Evans and Hart said Lofton’s family is pushing for all evidence to be released to the public. Hart said authorities triggered “a cascade of errors” that eventually led to the teen being placed in the prone position.
“What type of threat was that child? Why would they put him the in prone position?” he said. “They literally suffocated this kid.”
Evans noted that “the level of heartbreak has been indescribable” for the family over the past few months. He remains infuriated over how the 17-year-old died.
“I don’t want this to be glossed over as him dying in the prone position. They violently beat and killed a child, let’s not sugarcoat it,” he said. “This is a crime against humanity.”