Over the past decade, at least 70 people have died in law enforcement custody after saying “I can’t breathe,” the New York Times reports. The dead ranged in age from 19 to 65. Most were stopped for nonviolent infractions, 911 calls about suspicious behavior, or concerns about their mental health. More than half were black. Videos, court documents, autopsies and police reports in these cases show a pattern of aggressive tactics that ignored prevailing safety precautions while citing dubious science that suggested that people pleading for air do not need urgent help. In some cases, officers restrained detainees by the neck, hogtied them, tased them multiple times or covered their heads with mesh hoods to prevent spitting or biting. Most often, officers pushed them face down and held them prone with their body weight.
Police departments have banned some dangerous restraint techniques, such as hogtying, and restricted the use of others, including chokeholds, to cases in which officers fear for their lives. They have warned officers about the risks of moves such as facedown compression holds. Many cases suggest a widespread belief that persists in departments across the country that a person being detained who says “I can’t breathe” is lying or exaggerating. Police officers for generations have been taught that a person who can talk can also breathe. For five years, a federal law has required police agencies to report all in-custody deaths to the Justice Department or face the loss of federal funding. The Justice Department has been slow to enforce the law. Though there has been only scattershot reporting by departments, not a single dollar has been withheld. Only a small fraction of officers have faced criminal charges, and almost none has been convicted.