By Natalia Ruvalcaba
WICHITA, KS – A Kansas medical examiner called the cause of death of an unarmed Black teenager here who was in police custody a homicide, once again bringing attention to a controversial technique utilized by law enforcement also seen in the police murder case of George Floyd, according to Timothy Bella with The Washington Post.
As described by the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center’s autopsy report, 17-year-old Cedric Lofton passed away on Sept. 26 in Wichita, only two days following police response to a call that noted the teenager as “exhibiting erratic and aggressive behavior” regarding his foster family.
Lofton was placed in the prone position with his ankles constrained by shackles, his wrists handcuffed behind his back, and on his chest, where officers had placed him.
The autopsy report states that at the Sedgwick County Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center, Lofton lost consciousness and never regained it.
Timothy S. Gorrill, the chief medical examiner, reported, “In my opinion, Cedric Lofton died as a result of complications of cardiopulmonary arrest sustained after physical struggle while restrained in the prone position. The manner of death is homicide.”
Reporter Bella notes the autopsy’s findings are in opposition to earlier remarks from authorities, who claimed Lofton did not endure life-threatening injuries.
All the workers from the juvenile center who are thought to be responsible for the death of the 17-year-old have yet to be charged. The employees who have not been identified to the public, as stated by Bella, are pending the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office investigation while on paid administrative leave.
Bella writes that Lofton’s case brings attention to the safety of authorities overpowering suspects while they are faced toward the ground. This technique was just spotlighted in the case of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin who was convicted in the May 2020 murder of Floyd, because the technique limits respiratory function.
Bella recounted how it was the testimony from multiple medical experts that aided in the prosecution of Chauvin, as they explained that the use of the prone position contributed to the death of a Black man. The defense provided the court with evidence showing the prone restraint does not cause death.
Steven Hart, the Chicago attorney who represents the Lofton Family, told The Washington Post that authorities “should know from the Floyd case alone” that the level of risk is increased when someone is in custody and placed in the prone position.
Hart stated “That’s what’s equally disturbing. Authorities can’t plausibly suggest that putting someone in prone position is a safe thing to do. It’s a conscious disregard for safety — and their life.”
According to the spokesman for Lofton’s parents, Rev. Maurice W. Evans, “This position is used to submit an animal. It’s not how you handle a human being.”
Bella observes that officials of the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections, which employs the officer involved in Lofton’s death, did not immediately acknowledge the request last week for comment.
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett, in a statement to the Washington Post, noted a research study from the National Association of Medical Examiners that cited how “deaths due to positional restraint” are not always accompanied by an “intent to kill.”
Bennett continued, “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.
“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 added.
According to Bennett, the case, directed by the agents with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, is still in progress. Bennett said that by next month, the office will be done in its review of Lofton’s autopsy report.
Bella wrote that the officials with the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections refused to comment and emailed Bennett’s statement to share, instead.
In recent months, some experts have pushed back on research that was once accepted by many and that deduced that the prone restraint is safe, according to Bella.
Alon Steinberg, chief cardiology at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, CA. published a paper in October for the National Institutes of Health, finding that deadly police violence is often misclassified and that studies have permitted authorities grounds to excuse officers’ actions.
Steinberg, who has been a consultant against police officers in multiple cases, stated in October to the New York Times, “People are dying all the time, and we’re not doing anything about it. I want to shout it out to everyone: Let’s stop this right now.”
According to Bella, after the conviction of Chauvin, interest around prone position deaths in recent years has increased.
An investigation last year by KUSA in Denver and KARE in Minneapolis discovered that more than 113 police prone-restraint deaths have occurred since 2010, bringing wrongful death payouts to $70 million in taxpayer money.
As noted by Seth Stoughton, a police officer now serving as a law professor at the University of South Carolina, he told KUSA “once somebody has been restrained, they should not stay in the prone restraint position.”
Stoughton, who testified in the trial of Chauvin stated, “It’s difficult to watch officers continue to make the same mistake.”
This video depicts police officers taunting a man before he died in jail: “You shouldn’t be able to breathe”
Former New York City police officer and current lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Eugene O’Donnell, noted that challenges within policing have increased due to diminishing interest in police recruits. O’Donnell explains that there is insufficient time needed for training and a restrictive physical magnitude for officers to take on in cases of custody circumstances.
O’Donnell told The Washington Post, “They are frequently overmatched. 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.”
In response to a question about the continued use of the prone position despite its known fatal effects, O’Donnell replied, “I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. We’re lucky it doesn’t happen more often.”
According to records, on Sept. 21 Lofton ran away from his foster care home and returned to the residence on Sept. 24 around midnight. While the reasons for Lofton’s runaway are unclear, Hart stated that the teen was experiencing “a mental health crisis.”
According to the autopsy report, after returning to his foster home, the teen showed signs of “erratic and aggressive behavior.”
Bella notes that the police had arranged to take the teen to a nearby hospital that had a “behavioral health unit,” however, plans were altered when the teen reportedly “assaulted one or more of the officers.”
According to county officials, instead, the teen was taken to the Sedgwick County Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center to be charged with four counts of battery against a police officer.
Bella states that around 4:12 a.m. Lofton was taken to the lobby of the facility, only 90 minutes after being placed in a cell. Lofton then allegedly became “uncooperative and agitated” which resulted in his being restrained by two staff members, one of whom he punched in the head, as noted by the report.
According to the report, “additional staff members” got involved in the altercation, detaining Lofton by constraining his ankles, and it mentioned video footage of the incident that had not been publicized.
Records show that Lofton continued to struggle and at 5:08 a.m. was placed facedown and handcuffed. The autopsy states that Lofton allegedly “calmed down” and “made occasional snoring sounds.”
Bella writes that four minutes later when officials came to check on the teen, he did not have a pulse. Chest compressions were then administered by staff members and emergency services were called. Two days later, Bella notes, Lofton was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Hart noted that the teen only weighed 135 pounds, and the autopsy reported that Lofton was “soaking wet” and was positive for the coronavirus.
Lofton’s family is requesting all evidence to be released to the public, according to Evans and Hart. Hart states that the authorities caused, “a cascade of errors” that ultimately led to the teen being situated in the prone position.
Hart expressed, “What type of threat was that child? Why would they put him the in prone position? They literally suffocated this kid.”
Evans recounts that over the past few months “the level of heartbreak has been indescribable” for Lofton’s family. Bella examines how Evans continues to remain infuriated by the 17-year-old’s cause of death.
Evans affirmed, “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. This is a crime against humanity.”