In 2013 the city of Minneapolis paid $3 million to the family of David Cornelius Smith, who died after police pinned him face down, while handcuffed, on the floor of a downtown YMCA.
It remains one of the largest payouts for a police misconduct lawsuit in the city’s history, and Smith’s death in 2010 focused public attention on the dangerous prone restraint tactic.
Now, following the death of George Floyd in a similar restraint, Smith’s family wants to know whether the Minneapolis Police Department ever fulfilled a promise in the city’s settlement to require all sworn officers undergo training on the dangers of positional asphyxia.
Smith’s sister put the question to the civilian Minneapolis Police Conduct Oversight Commission (PCOC) on Tuesday evening. Billed as a community-listening session, the virtual meeting was the panel’s first since Floyd’s death May 25 and the violent protests that erupted afterward.
Speaking from Atlanta, David Smith’s sister Angela choked back tears as she told the commission how devastated her family is that another black man has died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Smith, 41, said that her family fought for a settlement that included MPD reforms on the use of such extreme restraints, so that “nobody else would have to die like my brother did.”
“But now I heard George Floyd cry out for his mom, and people stood by as he died,” she said. “We want to know: Why didn’t the police train officers to let them know how dangerous this type of restraint is, and these people don’t have to die?”
Of the nearly 20 people who spoke, some offered concrete recommendations for altering the current state of policing.
The Rev. Daniel Wolpert, a Presbyterian minister who lives just two blocks from where Floyd was killed, blasted the commission for “milquetoast” statements regarding Floyd’s death and its inability to create meaningful reforms.
“You are certainly not a credible public body. That’s not surprising. Most civilian oversight commissions have no power and no teeth,” Wolpert said. “You should try to be honest about the fact that you can’t really do anything.”
Commissioners thanked the public for their comments and said they were necessary, if difficult to hear.
Chairman Afsheen Foroozan told Smith that he would find out whether the MPD did the agreed-upon training. Commission member Abigail Cerra said that she asked the MPD and was told to submit a data practices act request for it, which she did.
The seven-member commission is a civilian group appointed by the mayor and City Council. It directs and guides the Office of Police Conduct Review, which investigates misconduct complaints. Unlike the commission, the review office is made up of paid city staff and law enforcement officers and is part of the city’s Department of Civil Rights.
Jeff Storms, a lawyer who represented the Smith family in its lawsuit, said people have known for decades that holding individuals in a prone restraint position, particularly with weight on their back, can kill them.
“It would be deeply disturbing to believe that any officer in the year 2020 would not train on the risks of positional asphyxiation, particularly in Minneapolis,” Storms said.
Storms said the MPD announced in 2012 that it distributed a video for officers on the dangers of prone restraint tactics to play during roll call. The video included a medical examiner advising officers “not to restrain subjects in the prone position with weight on the subject’s back,” court documents show.
That was before the 2013 settlement with the Smith family, however.
Minneapolis Police spokesman John Elder told the Star Tribune on Tuesday that he did not know whether all officers received the training, and advised the newspaper to submit a data practices act request.
Veteran MPD officers privately said they didn’t think it was possible that a seasoned officer such as Derek Chauvin didn’t know about the dangers of body weight pins, or positional asphyxia. For decades, the department’s annual in-service training regularly mentioned the term, one retired senior official said, and repeatedly taught law enforcement not to leave an individual on their stomach — especially while handcuffed.
Al Giraud-Isaacson, a former member on the civilian watchdog panel, lamented that nothing has changed since the commission’s founding in 2013. It still struggles for funding, begs for City Council members to engage and lacks real authority.
“There’s no oversight of police conduct with this commission — and it’s not the commissioners’ fault. They do everything they can under their power to influence changes, influence policy,” he said, but urged current members to fight for greater authority.
“Demand the City Council rewrite the city ordinance that regulates oversight of the police; take the police completely out of the process,” Giraud-Isaacson said. “Lobby the state to change the state statute … that severely restricts what Minneapolis can do on oversight.”
Giraud-Isaacson was referring to the changes made in 2012 taking away the ability of civilian oversight bodies to make a finding of fact or determination regarding a misconduct complaint or impose discipline on an officer.
In an interview following the meeting, Commissioner Cerra said she had her marching orders.
“I received the clear directive from residents and the Smith family: Step up and get at it,” Cerra said. “The PCOC has power, and I will use it to demand systemic change.”