Tucson police in crisis after death of Latino man in custody

The Tucson, Arizona police chief abruptly offered to resign Wednesday while posting a video in which a 27-year-old Latino man, Carlos Ingram Lopez, died in police custody two months ago.

The video, taken by police officers’ body cameras and not released until Wednesday, shows a gruesome episode on April 21. Before his death, Mr. López is seen handcuffed as he repeatedly pleads in English and Spanish for water and for his nanny, or grandmother.

Chief Chris Magnus said officers did not use a choke on Mr. López. But he said they violated training guidelines by restraining the victim to a face-down, face-down position for about 12 minutes before Mr. López suffered cardiac arrest and died on the spot. While restricted, Mr. López told officers that he was unable to breathe.

The autopsy report said the cause of death was a combination of physical restraint and cardiac arrest involving cocaine poisoning. Three officers resigned from the department last Thursday, Chief Magnus said.

The revelation of Mr. López’s death comes at a time when many Latinos in the United States are calling for changes in the way the police treat their communities, echoing similar calls from African Americans. Last week in California, outrage erupted over the murder of Andres Guardado, an 18-year-old Latino student and security guard, by a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy. The Tucson episode occurred about a month before George Floyd, a black man, was killed by police officers in Minneapolis, sparking protests across the country.

Mayor Regina Romero of Tucson seemed shocked as she discussed Mr. López’s death at a press conference on Wednesday. She spoke in Spanish, offering her condolences to Mr. López’s family, while expressing outrage in English at what happened.

“I am deeply concerned and outraged,” said Romero, who is the first Latina to serve as mayor of the heavily Latino city. “These officers would have been fired if they had not resigned.”

Two of the officers who resigned are white and one is African American, said Lane Santa Cruz, a member of the City Council who had been briefed on the episode and reviewed the video Tuesday. The police chief identified them as Samuel Routledge, Ryan Starbuck and Jonathan Jackson.

Chief Magnus’s offer to resign seemed to surprise Mrs. Romero, who was at his side. She said she would examine the details of what happened before taking action.

The department’s handling of the problem is now under intense scrutiny. Authorities did not reveal details of López’s death until Tuesday, when Romero canceled a Municipal Council meeting after watching the video.

Before the video was released, Chief Magnus had publicly described the Tucson police as one of the most progressive departments in the country. Previously, he had banned bottlenecks and required officers to participate in cultural awareness and crisis intervention training.

Chief Magnus said the officers were responding to a call about “disorderly conduct” from Mr. López, who was naked and appeared to be acting erratically when officers arrived on the scene. At one point, an officer told Mr. López that he would be surprised by an electric pistol if he did not cooperate.

At the press conference, Chief Magnus said he had asked the FBI to review the episode, which has been under internal investigation in the department. He said the officers involved had not met the standards set in the training for what he described as a mental health crisis involving “excited delirium.”

For years, many departments have trained officers who were held upside down, in what is known as “prone restraint,” are more likely to die suddenly from positional asphyxiation because they have difficulty expanding their chest to bring in air.

This is particularly true if they are showing signs of mental distress or stimulant drug intoxication, a condition sometimes called excited delirium. Guidelines for such circumstances generally require officers to move people to their side or feel them as soon as possible.

The autopsy report for Mr. López noted that he was held in the upside down position with a spit hood, a mesh cover that covers the head. Officers attempted to administer CPR to revive Mr. López and also injected him with Narcan, a drug used to revive people for opioid overdoses.

Latino leaders in Tucson expressed dismay and anguish after the video was released. Ms Santa Cruz, the councilwoman, said the episode highlighted how “the police are disproportionately killing us.”

Mrs. Santa Cruz emphasized how desperate Mr. López was while restrained, calling his nanny. “In our culture, babysitters are matriarchs,” he said. “She was asking for her life jacket.”

Jennifer Valentino-Devries contributed reporting.