One night, an acquaintance and I, out hunting something folks really shouldn't fool with, happened to be pulled over by one of Raleigh's finest--something about bad lights in a neighborhood that sooooo wasn't the one we lived in. Second time the officer returned to get me out of the car, when he leaned in to talk, I pointed with my chin. "Yo, officer. Gun. Sorry."
He glanced at my S&W .38 "Bodyguard" that hadn't been on the dash the first time he approached the vehicle. I'd been at a previous engagement and forgotten about the damned thing 'til it was too late, so small and light they are.
"Mmm-mmm-mmm. This is bad," he said, picking it up carefully with both hands.
"Mr. Eichenberger, I don't blame you for having a gun with you down here," he said, quite aware of what we were up to (as cops invariably are--don't fool yourself) and having frisked me and found the holster--and no concealed-carry permit.
After the stern lecture, when it was all over, he handed the still-loaded Little Princess back.
"Take your silly little gun and get out of here."
I mention this not to brag--Lord, I've got stories--but to reflect how things can work out so differently for one than for another.
I'm leafing through Batrone Hedgepeth's autopsy. The document asks more questions than it answers, re-enforcing what in the last few months has become some serious ice water flung in the face of our smug self-image of how we treat our poor, mostly black citizens (Katrina) and how lynching has not gone away--it has merely become a game of chance.
Hedgepeth was 31 when he died last May 11 after a struggle with a scrum of police who had gone to his home to fetch him over a failure to appear in court--for drinking an open can of beer on the street. He came to the door, went back inside, came back out and put his hand in his pocket against orders. That's when police moved in. Turns out he had a set of keys in his hand and had been trying merely to lock his front door.
While on the ground, officers sprayed him with oleoresin capsicum, aka pepper spray or OC. Raleigh police procedures don't warn against spraying a subject while they're face down on the ground in handcuffs, though others do. Says a U.S. Marine Corps training manual: "Positional asphyxiation of subjects exposed to OC can occur if they are placed in confined spaces or on their stomach with their hands cuffed behind their back. The consumption of alcohol and/or cocaine may also contribute to positional asphyxiation of subjects sprayed with OC. The constricted position could result in respiratory distress/failure" (see "Arrest ignored pepper spray warnings," May 25, 2005, indyweek.com/durham/2005-05-25/triangles.html).
In Hedgepeth's case, the cause of death is listed as "Cocaine toxicity and acute aspiration of gastric contents." His exact position when police had him on the ground and sprayed him was not determined.
To be fair, Hedgepeth had a lot of strikes against him that night--high on coke, an enlarged heart, bipolar with a deep (justified, turns out) fear of police.
So there was the cocaine issue, but there is also that Hedgepeth was sprayed with CapStun (pepper spray), then had cops piled on top of him (emptying his stomach into his lungs) until, according to witnesses, "you couldn't even see him." And if that wasn't enough, when EMS finally showed up (because of his lack of response), he was administered Lidocaine--not something you want to give someone with a bad ticker and high on coke, one paper stating that "overall toxicity of cocaine is significantly increased with simultaneous exposure to Lidocaine" (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=1996793&dopt=Abstract). Cause of death ? Take your pick.
Lordy, it is a world of statistics out there. I can dredge up all kinds of data, like how many NCSU students play the bagpipes, but one that is kind of hard to find is an accurate reckoning of just how many folks die because of faulty procedures while under police custody, especially after they've been hosed with CapStun.
Ever wonder how oleoresin capsicum, a compound that in large amounts can actually lead to cardiac arrest, got onto the hips of 15 million cops? Via a deeply flawed FBI paper cited by OC's supporters. The part they don't mention was that the agent in charge, one Thomas Ward, did time in the federal pen for taking $57 grand in kickbacks from Luckey (I swear I don't make this stuff up) Police Products, while doing the "tests" at Quantico ( www.nopepperspray.org).
Of course, there's also the fact that most of the folks who are doused with pepper spray happen to be black (that's what a Civilian Review Board in New York City found)--an example of the secret advantage white folks have when dealing with the po-leece, as my anecdote above illustrated.
A number of organizations have published concerns about using CapStun to subdue non-compliant subjects, Amnesty International observed:
"Amnesty International is ... concerned by the potential health risks caused by pepper spray particularly when used in large quantities, or in combination with other restraints which can inhibit breathing. Although pepper spray has been promoted as a safer and more effective alternative to mace or impact weapons, some research studies have found that it can be harmful to people with respiratory problems such as asthma, and heart disease.
"Studies have also warned that pepper spray may not be effective against subjects who are extremely agitated or under the influence of drugs, possibly leading to over-use of the spray to dangerous levels" (www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/rn/2001-02/02rn19.htm, web.amnesty.org/library/index/engamr511392004).
Trone's intuition and the facts were dead nuts. "If those police get a hold of you, they'll kill you," he told his mother. And sure enough, they did. In the gobbledy-gook world of police psychobabble there is this recently identified malady called "excited delirium," where the often soon-to-be-dead mofo struggles with arresting officers, displaying "superhuman" strength, usually after having done drugs and been sprayed with OC. Call it what you will--sounds like a death struggle to me. It has gotten so bad that many police agencies are taking another look at both Tazers and OC, as they should. Some countries ban both items because of a lack of or incorrect data. Not in Raleigh, where cops continue to spray the stuff around like foo-foo water.
I called Jim Sughrue, spokesperson for the Raleigh Police Department, who left a message that there was "no change in RPD policy" over the use of OC. As for burying the detainee in 700 or so pounds of cop, there is no policy in RPD's own procedural manual--apparently leaving take-down techniques up to the officers, with disastrous consequences, as we've seen.
Because the fact remains: Batrone Hedgepeth was very much alive until the police showed up.