Another nightmare video and the police on the defensive in Tucson

A view of the Tucson Police Department in Arizona on June 25, 2020. PHOTO: NYTIMES

TUCSON (NYTIMES) - It was another gruesome video of policing in America - a naked Latino man, his face covered by a mesh spit guard, his hands cuffed behind him as he lay dying face down on the ground at his grandmother's house. He pleaded for water more than a dozen times, saying he could not breathe as police officers restrained his legs and torso.

This time, the scene was a southern Arizona city with a politically moderate image, a large Latino population and a Police Department said to be relatively progressive.

The victim was Carlos Ingram Lopez, a 27-year-old cooking school graduate who prepared every meal from scratch for his 2-year-old daughter and watched YouTube videos to learn how to comb her hair. His death, as he was having a mental health crisis that led to a call for help, was a jarring reminder that Latinos as well as African Americans have a troubled history with the police, even though Latinos' struggles do not get the same attention.

"The idea that Tucson police are progressive is something I've only heard from white folks," said Alba Jaramillo, 40, a Tucson lawyer who obtained United States citizenship after living illegally in the city into her 20s.

Still unanswered is why it took the police two months to release the video taken by officers' body cameras when Lopez's family had almost immediately asked to see it. Regina Romero, Tucson's first Latina mayor, said on Thursday (June 25) that there had been a "breakdown" inside the Police Department and that she had not learned of Lopez's death until last week, when the police chief called her. Even then, she said, the city's lawyer warned her and the City Council not to say anything publicly because it could be seen as an effort to influence the internal investigation, which was still underway.

"My first instinct is, you need to put this information out there to the community," said Romero, who heeded the lawyer's advice. After she was shown the video this week, she urged the police to make it public as soon as it could be played for Lopez's family Wednesday.

An autopsy report by the Pima County medical examiner's office found that Lopez died of sudden cardiac arrest, with physical restraint by officers and cocaine intoxication as contributing factors. In an unusual move, the medical examiner's office ruled that the manner of death was undetermined, leaving open the question of whether Lopez died of natural causes or whether his death was a homicide.

In other cases around the country, similar deaths have been ruled homicides. Numerous people who have been handcuffed and put in a face-down prone position as officers restrain them have died in custody in recent years.

Last year, Vicente Villela, 37, told the officers holding him down at a jail in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that he could not breathe. He lay on his stomach as the guards struggled to remove his shackles and pressed their knees onto his back and legs. Villela died, and the autopsy report found that he had died of "mechanical asphyxia," with physical restraint and the effects of methamphetamine as contributing factors. His death was ruled a homicide.

Three officers involved in Lopez's death resigned before the public release of the video, and Chris Magnus, Tucson's police chief, offered to resign.

But Romero said on Thursday that Magnus should remain in the job, emphasizing that authorities should not be distracted from examining why Lopez's life was "needlessly lost." Many Latino residents were already expressing dismay over the gap between the Tucson department's professed goals and the reality of how Latinos in the city were often treated by the police.

At least by its own description before Lopez's death, the Tucson Police Department figured among the most forward-thinking in the country. The department had banned chokeholds and shooting at moving vehicles, embracing a range of measures aimed at reducing police violence. Magnus is known as a maverick for pushing progressive changes.

Still, Latino leaders in Tucson say that Lopez's death, and the way the episode was kept secret for months, is just the newest reminder of how many people in their communities live in fear of the city's police.

Questions are now swirling around the police leadership in Tucson, where Latinos account for more than 43 per cent of the population. Magnus said the public should have been notified sooner about Lopez's death but contended that the "chaos that was going on" during the coronavirus pandemic had complicated matters.

That offers little solace to Lopez's family, who knew him as a brother, a fiancé, a father and a son. Family members said he was a man who always reminded those around him how much he loved them. Lopez, who grew up in Tucson and graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, adored his grandmother in particular, family members said.

"Anytime you had any type of encounter, he gave you a huge, huge smile," said Diana Chuffe, Lopez's aunt.

Eduardo Coronado, the lawyer representing Lopez's family, requested video of the episode on April 22, the day after Lopez died. Coronado said he had not received an explanation of why the video was released more than two months later.

Romero said that although the police's internal affairs office started an investigation after Lopez's death, the lieutenant in charge of that office had not immediately alerted Magnus or his deputy to the video and what it showed.

The mayor and Magnus have both said they will make sure that the police review video of all in-custody deaths and quickly inform the public, something Romero said they already do for police shootings. Romero said that in many cases, however, the videos themselves should not be released until an internal review is completed.

"There needs to be police accountability and transparency as much as we possibly can," she said. "And there needs to be a fair internal investigation as well. It's a balanced approach that we need to take."

Coronado said the family was questioning the necessity of the spit hood, the mesh covering that the police placed over Lopez's head. The family is worried that the spit hood was impeding Lopez's breathing, and they said that Lopez was gasping for air while he was being restrained face down on the concrete floor, according to Coronado.

"All of a sudden, 12 minutes later, he's passed away," Coronado said.

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