Hogtying, homicide and humanity: DOJ document warns about restraint that killed Marcus Deon Smith
*Editor’s note: After this article’s publication, there was another bodycam video added to the City of Greensboro’s website, making a total of 20 individual bodycam videos. This online version has been updated.
A 23-year-old Justice Department bulletin warns against the controversial “hogtie” restraint used on Marcus Deon Smith, the 38-year-old African-American man who died Sept. 8 while in Greensboro police custody, and whose death has been ruled homicide by the state office of the medical examiner.
Before defining “hogtying” and “homicide” (and describing the DOJ article linking them), there’s another relevant word beginning with “H.” Greensboro City Council at-large representative Michelle Kennedy doesn’t want Greensboro to forget about Smith’s humanity.
“Here are a bunch more H-words,” Kennedy wrote in a Saturday message that called Smith “honest, about both good and bad things,” saying “hair was his passion” and that he was “taking steps to become a licensed barber.” She also emphasized his humor; describing him as “a smart, funny guy who cared a lot about other people.”
She met him through her work as executive director of the Interactive Resource Center, where she said she and others would miss his jokes and the poetry he wrote to express more somber feelings.
There’s another H-word, describing an increasing percentage of Americans: homeless. That, along with mental illness and drug addiction, brought Smith into Kennedy’s orbit. However, neither homelessness nor health was what killed him.
According to the autopsy, his treatment at the hands of the Greensboro Police Department was a greater factor in his death than the drugs in his system. The report listed the causes of his death in order of importance as “sudden cardiopulmonary arrest due to prone restraint; n-ethylpentalone, cocaine, and alcohol use; and hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. The manner of death is classified as homicide.” In ruling Smith’s death that, the report defines homicide as resulting from the actions of persons other than himself. (Coroners typically classify all deaths as natural, accidental, suicide, homicide or undetermined.)
The fatal “prone restraint” occurred when he was “hogtied” and held down on his stomach on Church Street by four GPD officers while awaiting the arrival of EMS. While some police departments have, in recent years, objected to the term “hogtie,” the word has an established history of use by both law enforcement officers and their supporters.
A 2008 article from Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, an advocacy organization for “law-abiding citizens” and “professional law enforcement,” defines “hogtying” as “placing the suspect in a prone position with his or her hands secured by handcuffs, and legs held together with restraints. The hand and leg restraints are then connected, resulting in the slight elevation of the suspect’s upper and lower body.”
The dangers of applying this restraint are described in a 1995 bulletin from the National Law Enforcement and Technology Center (NLETC), a program of the National Institute of Justice. The NIJ is part of The Office of Justice Programs (OJP) branch of the United States Department of Justice.
The June 1995 NLETC article “Positional Asphyxia—Sudden Death” defines “positional asphyxia” as “death as a result of body position that interferes with one’s ability to breathe—as it occurs within a confrontational situation involving law enforcement officers.” It offers this information “to help officers recognize factors contributing to this phenomenon and, therefore, enable them to respond in a way that will ensure the subject’s safety and minimize risk of death,” recommending that officers “avoid the use of maximally prone restraint techniques (e.g., hogtying).” It also states; “As soon as the suspect is handcuffed, get him off his stomach.”
The amount of time Smith was kept on his stomach may be key to questions about GPD responsibility for his death.
Shortly after midnight on Sept. 8, roughly one hour after the first night of the North Carolina Folk Festival ended and another hour before Smith’s life did, police responded to reports of a man weaving in and out of traffic in the 100-block of North Church Street. What happened next is recorded on bodycams worn by the officers who arrived at the scene, of which there were many due to the event happening downtown. While only four officers took part in restraining Smith, over a dozen witnessed it and recorded what transpired.
On the evening of Nov. 30, after Smith’s death was declared a homicide, the City of Greensboro put 20 individual bodycam videos online, along with a 23-minute compilation hosted by Greensboro Police Chief Wayne Scott, who introduces it with a narrative of what happened.
Rather rely on Scott’s description or the city’s edit; I have based my own narrative upon repeated viewing of the 19 individual videos. (Note that they are of different lengths and begin and end at different points of the incident, due to officers arriving and activating their cameras at different times.)
Smith is first visible running back and forth in the middle of the street. He approaches an officer, saying “Please sir, I’m gonna kill myself.” The officer asks his name and tells him to stay out of traffic. Smith says, “I’m Marcus” and “help me, call the ambulance.”
His behavior agitated but not aggressive. Smith runs in circles, mumbling and shouting “[inaudible] gonna kill me” and, repeatedly, “help!” Addressing him as “buddy” and “boss man” (never as “Marcus”), the officers convinced him to get into the back of a police car, then debate whether or not to call an ambulance or transport him to the hospital themselves.
Left in the back of the police car, blue lights flashing above and around him, Smith is heard striking the inside of the car. Officers shine flashlights on him. One says, “he’s gonna break it.” At 06:06 of video 1, an officer describes what happened before placing Smith in the car, saying “I’m high, I’m gonna kill myself,” apparently imitating Smith.
At 06:21 of that video, an officer opens the car door, saying “no, no, no, don’t kick through the window, boss man.” At this point, a female paramedic who has arrived on the scene can be heard saying, “he’ll have to be restrained.”
Smith emerges from the vehicle. In his introduction to the compilation of bodycam videos edited together by city, Chief Scott says that Smith “flees from the car and directly into the arms of an officer, whereupon he collapsed onto the roadway.” There is some question as to whether this is an accurate description.
This part of the incident is most clearly visible on videos 1, 8, 17 and 18. Here is what they depict:
In video 1, at 06:29, the door to the police car held open by an officer. Smith emerges and is restrained from behind by another officer within a couple of steps. Shouting, “I ain’t resisting!” at 06:38, he goes to ground, but it is difficult to tell if he is pulled or pushed, or if he trips and falls. (One reason that “collapsed” is a problematic descriptor is that his fall does not appear to be the result of his having lost control of his own body without interference from the officers.)
Video 8 begins on the opposite side of the police car as Smith emerges. The officer wearing the camera moves around the car, and at 00:28 Smith comes into view, another officer’s hands already on him from behind as he goes to the ground.
Video 17 is from the camera of an officer arriving as Smith is restrained. Smith first comes into view at 00:17, already visibly off-balance with an officer grasping him from behind. He falls, trips or is tripped onto his side. He seems to be rolling onto his back and attempting to raise his body, but as other officers join in, he is rolled over onto his stomach.
On video 18, Smith going or being taken to the pavement is visible at 07:30. He emerges, and an officer grabs him from behind. It is again difficult to tell if the combination of his momentum and the restraint trips him, or if the officer pushes him down.
In all the videos of him on the ground, he often disappears below the frame, as the officers are standing. He writhes as he is rolled over on to his stomach, grunting and shouting. Smith’s hands are handcuffed behind his back, and a restraint known as a RIPP Hobble is used to secure his ankles and attach them to his wrists.
Smith shouts, screams and groans. It is unclear (at least to me) whether his movements are those of a man resisting or simply thrashing in pain. The clearest view is on video 17, where officers roll Smith over at the 30-second mark (be warned, it’s a disturbing watch). At 00:35, he shouts, “I ain’t resisting.” At 00:50, he’s on his stomach. At 01:20, an officer says “relax, we’re trying to help you,” as Smith groans. He continues to do so for another minute.
The last partial view of his face is around 02:42, and there are no further sounds or apparent movement from him after 02:43. After the restraint is successfully applied and the officers take their hands off Smith, there is nothing to suggest any intention on their part of moving him onto his side or into a sitting position. He lies on his stomach, with 25 seconds passing before anyone remarks on his silent and limp immobility.
At 03:08 on video 17, an officer asks, “My man, you okay? You still with us?”
The female paramedic shouts “hey!” and checks him. His eyes are shut, and his mouth is open as he is rolled over on his side at 03:15. At 03:26, he is rolled back onto his stomach, and his restraints are removed.
An officer remarks, “I don’t think he’s breathing at all.” The paramedic directs the officers to assist her in getting him on the truck. At 04:20, with Smith on his back, unresponsive on the stretcher, she says “he’s got a pulse, I just need to get him on the truck.” When an officer asks, “is he breathing?” she says “no, that’s why we need to get him on the truck.”
While it’s not audible on video 17, she can then be heard saying “there you go, he’s breathing” on video 1, at 28 seconds after she says “no, that’s why we need to get him on the truck” (04:22 on video 17 and 10:27 on video 1). It takes about 70 seconds to load him on the truck. No CPR appears to be administered until he is inside. At around 2 a.m., Smith was pronounced dead in the emergency room of Moses Cone.
Many have criticized the original police news release of Smith’s death, which described him as “suicidal,” and stated he “became combative and collapsed” while making no mention of the “hogtie” restraint. As reported in YES! Weekly last week online, Mayor Vaughan said, “that very first press release, obviously, is a lie” at a Dec. 3 meeting at Shiloh Baptist church. On Friday, she qualified this in a phone call to me, stating “I think it’s important that the question [from at the audience] was formed with the word ‘lie’ in it and I did not come up with that term,” although she did use it in her reply.
That initial police report is not the only misstatement pertaining this incident to be issued from the office of Chief Scott. At both public meetings and in the media, much attention has been given to Section 11.1 of the GPD Directives Manual, “Handling and Transportation of Persons in Custody.” Paragraph 4, “Additional Restraints,” states the following: “At no time shall the wrists and ankles of an arrestee be linked together using the RIPP Hobble restraining device, unless the arrestee can be seated in an upright position, or on their side.”
On Nov. 29, Triad City Beat reported Chief Scott as claiming that directive didn’t apply because the GPD was not transporting Smith. “Those specific things you’re indicating are designed for when we’re transporting persons in custody. Unfortunately, we never got to the point where we’re transporting Mr. Smith.”
Despite the chief’s statement, there is nothing in the manual to indicate this directive only applies to persons being transported. The section is titled “Handling and Transportation of Persons in Custody,” not just “Transportation of Persons in Custody.” Smith was “handled” and “in custody,” although he was not under arrest.
On Friday, I emailed, and then called, the chief’s office, seeking clarification. Public information officer Ronald Glenn told me that TCB’s Jordan Green had quoted the chief accurately and that it was the only statement Scott would be making on the subject at this time. When I asked for an interview, Glenn repeated that this was the only statement Chief Scott would be making at this time.
On Sept. 13, two months and nine days before I unsuccessfully attempted to speak to Chief Scott, services were held for Smith at Springfield Missionary Baptist Church in Laurens, South Carolina. He is survived by his parents George and Mary Smith; one son, one daughter, two brothers and one sister.
According to information provided by his family, he was born in Laurens County on Jan. 30, 1980, moved to High Point with his brother in 2009 and came to Greensboro in 2010. His sister Kim Suber said he regularly talked about how much he loved Greensboro, saying he wanted to live here the rest of his life.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.