Family of Shayne Sutherland Reaches Settlement with Stockton for 2020 Death; Concerns As to Whether Policies Changed Enough

Mother Karen Sutherland speaks out in 2021 with Attorney James DeSimone to her right.

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Stockton, CA – The mother of a man who died of positional asphyxiation when Stockton Police held him face-down for more than eight minutes announced on Thursday that they have reached a settlement agreement for $6 million.

The Stockton City Council recently approved a $6 million settlement with Shayne Sutherland’s family in their federal wrongful death lawsuit. Attorney James DeSimone, who represents Sutherland, who was suffering from a mental health crisis on Oct. 8, 2020, believes his client likely would not have died if Stockton Police officers followed their training and rolled him onto his side into the recovery position after handcuffing him.

Instead, two officers held him face-down, applying pressure with their bodies and batons for more than eight minutes, resulting in the death of the father of two, and stepfather to three. He was 10 days shy of his 30th birthday.

Sutherland’s death came less than six months after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer under similar circumstances set off nationwide protests.

“This is about training and accountability,” DeSimone said. “Police agencies must ensure their officers have a clear understanding of how important it is to place someone who is handcuffed and prone into the recovery position as fast as possible, which is what they are supposed to be doing. The United States Department of Justice issued guidelines on how to preserve lives in 1995 and they should be required as part of the training for all police officers.

“Shayne should be here with his children, with his family. Instead, his life ended after he begged the officers to help him, to let him breathe.”

Shortly before his death, the officers responded to a 911 call made by Sutherland, who was trying to call for a taxi from an AM/PM store. An employee answered a dispatcher’s subsequent call to the store and told the dispatcher there was no emergency. Police arrived anyway.

Sutherland was inside the store and complied with the officer’s commands to walk outside. Sutherland was searched and complied with the officer’s instructions to sit down and answer questions.

As he was being questioned, Sutherland stood up and turned into the arms of the two police officers. One officer forcefully brought him to the ground and applied body weight at full force as the other handcuffed Sutherland. While lying on his stomach, in a prone position known to interfere with breathing, the handcuffed Sutherland apologized while struggling to breathe.

Despite Sutherland’s cooperation, the other officer applied his baton, arm, knees and body weight to his neck, back and shoulders. The officers ignored Sutherland’s obvious pain and distress, even as Sutherland pleaded that he could not breathe.

They saw that he was turning colors, losing consciousness, and bleeding from the mouth. Instead of putting him into a recovery position, they bent his legs into an unnatural position crossing his ankles up to his buttocks while applying pressure to keep him face down on his belly. On an officer’s body cam video, Sutherland is heard saying “I’m f***ing dead” before falling unconscious. He was pronounced dead in an emergency room less than an hour later.

However, despite the settlement agreement sending a strong message, DeSimone told the Vanguard in a phone interview following the press conference that he still has some concerns.

“They have adopted as of March 11, 2024, Lexipol Use of Force Policies,” DeSimone said.  “These policies are really written in a way by vagueness and a lack of guidance. So the police are not mandated to do certain things.”

One of the policies DeSimone expressed concern with is the notion “that positional asphyxiation and excited delirium are still matters subject to debate.”

He said, “That’s not really true.  Positional asphyxiation is based on medicine, it’s based on science. It’s based on what happens to the human body when someone is being pressed down in a handcuffed position.”

DeSimone noted that the state legislature has improved death determinations when it “declared by the legislature last year as it can’t be something that’s used as a cause of death because of the medical uncertainty and lack of any medical science behind this theory of excited delirium. There’s no scientific medical mechanism that shows why someone would die (by excited delirium) whereas positional asphyxiation, is you’re pressing someone down, you’re restricting their airways. It’s the psychology of a struggle.”

This came out in the 1995 US Department of Justice Guidelines on Positional Asphyxiation.

Unfortunately, DeSimone said, during the settlement process “we were assured that that policies were being changed in order to address this situation. They weren’t going to make them formally part of this process. We don’t have the power like district attorney or attorney general, especially an attorney general to say have some sort of consent decree or something like this. And we weren’t able to get them to agree to anything specific in terms of those policy changes.”

Meanwhile, Karen Sutherland told the Vanguard that this really was not about the money for her family.

“I’m grateful that this part is over,” she said.  “However, what I want to come out of this is changes made within the police department, obviously to where this doesn’t happen again to another family because this is just beyond anything that somebody can handle. So I just really hope and pray that Stockton as well as all police departments take the settlement seriously and put in place policies and actually implement those policies and hold their officers accountable if they don’t follow those policies.“

She explained, “Shayne’s death is a devastating loss for our entire family and community. It has been recently reported that at least 22 people have been killed by police through positional asphyxia after handcuffing in California, and this number is likely severely undercounted. Nobody should die this way when there are better police practices that are safe and will keep someone breathing and alive.”

For her, the worst part was that the police lied to her at first.

“When I first found out that Shane died, what was told to me was that he stood up and collapsed to the ground. So for a couple of hours I felt what a parent would feel had their child died of a more natural cause. And I mean it was devastating in itself. But then when you added on that that’s not how he died.”

Sutherland said, “He died at the hands of police and it was knowing that it was preventable and knowing that this shouldn’t have happened, added on, it was a thousand times more weight.”

The money will go to his children who will grow up without a father.

She said, “It brings me relief knowing that at least their college will be paid for and that financially it won’t have to [be a] struggle as if they had.”

She is hopeful “with the city of Stockton having to pay out $6 million, that they’re going to take this seriously and demand changes of the police department so that they’re not having to pay out another lawsuit like this.”

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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