Photo courtesy of Brienne Neville
One day before the release of video depicting the events leading up to the December 2019 death of John Neville, a man who was incarcerated in the Forsyth County jail, Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough held a press conference announcing policy changes and offering to name a unit of the jail in Neville’s honor.
Kimbrough’s discussion of the policy changes was brief and vague, limited to a single paragraph, and he took no questions from the reporters summoned to the press conference.
“I want you to know as a result of that, there are many changes that have been made as a result of the passing of your father,” Kimbrough told Sean Neville, John’s son. “Training — integrated training with the medical providers, policies and procedures — your father has changed the way healthcare will be dispensed at the Forsyth County Detention Center, as well as how it will be dispensed throughout this region, based on the conversation I’ve had.”
Video published by the Winston-Salem Journal and other outlets depicting Neville’s interaction with five detention officers and a nurse in the jail shows him repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe,” “Please,” and, “Help,” over the span of less than five minutes after they lowered him face-down into a prone position on a blue mattress in a small cell, then piled on top of him as one of the officers attempted remove handcuffs behind his back. In the video, Cpl. Edward Roussel responds, “You’re breathing because you’re talking, you’re yelling and you’re moving. You need to stop.”
At one point, Neville gasps, “I’m gonna die,” and Roussel responds, “Quit resisting us.”
As Roussel was attempting to unlock the handcuffs, the key broke; he asked for a pair of bolt-cutters. After the bolt-cutters failed to work, the officers determined they would have to go a warehouse or armory to fetch another pair. The officers asked each other if they were okay as Neville groaned. While they were waiting for the second pair of bolt-cutters, the officers joked that the damaged equipment would come out of their pay, and one lamented, “Those were actually a good pair, too.”
By then, Neville had fallen silent.
“John, are you all right, buddy,” Roussel asked. “I promise you we’re going to be done in a few minutes, all right?” Hearing no response, Roussel said, “I’ll take that as a yes.”
Neville died two days later at Baptist Hospital. His autopsy gave the cause as a “complications of positional and compressional asphyxia during prone restraint.” The medical examiner said Neville’s legs had been “flexed into a trifold position with his heels near his buttocks.”
For more than three weeks, members of Triad Abolition Project and the Unity Coalition have been marching and protesting while occupying Bailey Park to highlight four demands, including banning the use of the prone restraint, also known as hog-tying, and making “relevant changes… around protocol for inmates in medical distress.”
The ACLU of North Carolina has publicly backed the protesters’ demands while collecting signatures on an online petition to pressure the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office to make the changes.
After reviewing the video on Wednesday, the Winston-Salem Urban League joined the call to “end the use of the prone restraint/hog tie maneuver.”
Late Wednesday, Kathy Manning, the Democratic nominee for the 6th Congressional District, also called for law enforcement to end the practice, noting that Marcus Smith, a Greensboro man, also died from positional asphyxiation after being hogtied during an encounter with the Greensboro police.
“The video released today showed horrifying images of Mr. Neville being hogtied and asphyxiating,” Manning said. “Sadly, this is not the first time the use of this position has taken the life of a Triad resident in law enforcement custody. Marcus Deon Smith was hogtied by the Greensboro police and died in custody in September of 2018.
“The use of hogtying is known to carry a risk of asphyxiation and has been banned in other jurisdictions,” Manning continued. “Following the death of John Neville and Marcus Deon Smith, I am calling for a ban on the use of hogtying.”
Language added to the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office falls far short of ending the use of prone restraint.
A modification of the agency’s Standard Operating Policy for Use-of-Force last updated on July 9 — one day after the Forsyth County District Attorney announced involuntary homicide charges against the five detention officers and nurse — only says that “resisting individuals, who must be placed into a prone (face down) position to be subdued, should be repositioned to a sitting position or placed on their side as soon as restraining devices are applied.”
Protesters, whose occupation of Bailey Park continued into its 23rd day on Thursday, remained unimpressed by the policy changes implemented by the sheriff’s office.
“People should not be placed in a prone restraint for any reason at any time,” Brittany Battle of Triad Abolition Project said. “If law enforcement personnel use prone restraint, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office and Winston-Salem Police Department need to commit to immediate sanction, not giving a merit raise, as they did in the case of one officer involved in John Neville’s death.”
James Perry, president and CEO of the Winston-Salem Urban League, said he was troubled by language that permits officers to use their body weight to restrain civilians. One of the new provisions says, “Officers who must use their body weight to control an individual who is in the prone position shall exercise extreme caution and shall immediately remove their weight as soon as restraining devices are applied and potential weapons that may be accessible to the individual are secured. Officers should avoid sitting or placing their knee on an individual’s neck.” The language about avoiding the knee-to-neck maneuver could be interpreted as an advisory rather than a dictate, Perry said.
“In theory, if George Floyd were here in Winston-Salem and officers from the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office did a re-do of what happened to Mr. Floyd, under these polices, they might have an argument that they were complying with the policies,” Perry said. “When you look carefully at the use of the prone restraint and the use of the officer’s body weight and the permissiveness to use a knee; it does not state a prohibition in a way that is clear enough such that the officers that murdered George Floyd would have been able to be held responsible.”
Even before the death of George Floyd, the use of prone restraint by police had come under scrutiny.
Dr. Lawrence Heiskell, an emergency physician and veteran reserve officer with the Palm Springs (Calif.) Police Department, wrote in the December 2019 issue of Policing magazine: “To reduce the risk of positional asphyxia, the use of maximal face-down restraint techniques should be avoided. If it is necessary to position a person face-down under restraint, then the subject must be closely and continuously monitored.”
Christina Howell, the public-affairs officer for the sheriff’s office, said she was unable to get an answer as to why the agency has not opted to completely ban prone restraint before the deadline for this story.
Howell highlighted two changes as particularly significant. One, the addition of language about a “duty to intervene” would have been implemented in any case due to the public discussion surrounding the death of George Floyd, she said. The other significant change, she said, is language making it clear that medical personnel have primary responsibility for care when a medical emergency takes place.
Under the revised policies, the “duty to intervene” provision states that “any staff member present and observing another staff member using excessive force that is clearly beyond that which is objectively reasonable under the totality of the circumstances, shall, when it is safe and reasonable to do so and by any means necessary, intervene to stop the use of excessive force.” The provision also requires the staff member who intervenes to notify their supervisor and the supervisor to pass the information up the chain of command.
The revised policies also require officers to “follow the direction of medical personnel and grant the preservation of life priority over all matters” during times of “medical emergency.”
Perry said he gives the sheriff’s office some credit for the new policies outlining staff’s duty to intervene “when they see an emergency and when they see a fellow officer using an unreasonable level of force” and said that it’s “important that the sheriff’s office is including medical personnel as a fundamental part of their procedures.”
Angaza Laughinghouse, the field manager for the ACLU of North Carolina, said his organization still backs the protesters’ demand for a total ban on the hogtie, and he said the other policy changes should have been in place before Neville died. He added that without sanctions, the policies don’t mean much.
“We like to see a duty to intervene in policies, but what’s also troubling is it doesn’t say what the consequence for the officers is if they don’t intervene,” Laughinghouse said. “A promise without accountability really doesn’t mean much.”
Similarly, with regard to putting a nurse in charge in the event of a medical emergency, Laughinghouse said, “I think it’s meaningful in language in the policy itself, but without any consequences, I don’t know how much it would mean in real life. Common sense would tell you that if someone is saying, ‘I can’t breathe,’ then call in the medical expert and let them take the lead. And that didn’t happen in this instance. So, there have to be consequences.”
It’s not clear that the revised policies would have prevented John Neville’s death, since there’s a lot about the five officers and the nurse’s actions that haven’t been explained.
While the revised policy calls for detention officers to defer to medical personnel in cases of medical emergencies, the video shows that a nurse was on the scene from the outset when officers responded to Neville’s cell to assist him when he was suffering from a seizure.
The video shows Nurse Michelle Heughins administering a sternal rub — pressure on the sternum from a balled fist — to Neville as he lies on his back in his cell, and saying, “These guys are just here to protect you from you. You had a medical emergency.” Much later, after officers finally remove the handcuffs and strip off Neville’s clothes, Heughins comes into the cell at Roussel’s request and checks his vitals. Heughins leaves and the officers follow her, locking the cell behind them.
For about a minute, Heughins stands by the door peering through a narrow window into the cell. “Is he breathing?” she asks. “I can’t tell if he’s breathing.”
“Okay, let’s go back in,” Roussel responds. “We gotta make sure.”
Roussel instructs three officers to secure Neville’s arms and legs even though he isn’t moving.
“I can’t hear a heartbeat,” Heughins finally says, and asks for a defibrillator.
It’s not clear why Neville was placed in a prone restraint in the first place.
The video shows that Neville was already secured in a restraint chair after he was removed from the cell where he had suffered from a medical emergency. The video shows Neville complying as the officers remove him from the chair and help him kneel on the mattress in a small cell where they laid him face down and attempted to remove his cuffs.
While the revised policies call for officers to reposition the person to their side or to a sitting position “as soon as restraining devices are applied,” in Neville’s case it appears they placed him in the prone position for the purpose of removing the handcuffs.
Howell said she would look into the question of why the officers found it appropriate or necessary to place Neville in a prone restraint on Tuesday, but was not able to provide an answer before publication time.
While Sheriff Kimbrough has yet to provide a definitive statement on the prone restraint and whether the technique has a future in his agency, during his press conference he said that with the family and their lawyer’s permission he would name the unit where their father was housed in his honor.
Although Neville’s family has yet to respond, the idea has not received a warm reception.
“I think for me and the Triad Abolition Project, it was disgusting to hear that,” Brittany Battle said. “I don’t have any other way to describe it other than it would be an intimidation tool to make folks incarcerated remember that John Neville was murdered inside those walls, as they could face the same fate if they don’t fall in line with what the sheriff or the correctional officers are telling them to do. It was unbelievable to me that he would think it was anything appropriate or honorable to offer.”
Lonnie Albright, the assistant county attorney assigned to the sheriff’s office, said the policy changes in response to Neville’s death are still being rolled out.
Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill announced felony involuntary manslaughter charges against the five detention officers and the nurse that were involved in Neville’s death on July 8. Those charged are Sgt. Lavette M. Williams, Cpl. Edward J. Roussel, Detention Officer I Sarah E. Poole, Detention Officer I Christopher B. Stamper and Detention Officer I Antonio M. Woodley, along with Michelle Heughins, a nurse employed by WellPath.
Warning: Graphic content (video courtesy of Winston-Salem Journal)