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‘Please Help Me, Sir’

In September, Marcus Smith experienced a mental health crisis and begged Greensboro, North Carolina police for help. Instead, they tied him with restraints. Moments later, his body went lifeless.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by McCausland for the Homeless Union of Greensboro.

In the early morning hours of Sept. 8, 2018, Marcus Smith was experiencing a mental health crisis in the 100 block of North Church Street in Greensboro, North Carolina. “Please sir, please help me, sir,” Smith said as he was confronted by a group of police officers. “Boss man,” one officer replied as he watched Smith, a 38-year-old Black man, repeatedly run in and out of traffic, “you need to chill out.” Smith seemed to grow only more frantic. “They’re gonna kill me,” he said. “He’s just buggin’ out on somethin’,” an officer replied. “I want to go to the hospital,” Smith said, his breathing sounding more labored. The nearest hospital was less than 10 minutes away, but Smith wasn’t transported there by the officers for medical attention.

Instead, Smith was placed in a squad car and seemed to sink into further distress. He banged on the vehicle’s window. “Probably ought to Ripp Hobble him,” one officer said, referring to an ankle, knee, and elbow restraint manufactured by a company called Ripp Restraints International. “We definitely need to Ripp Hobble him so he doesn’t bust my window out and fly out on the way to the hospital.” Smith screamed as several officers hogtied him using the restraints. Then his screams became muted cries and the officers seemed to realize something was wrong. One officer checked his pulse while another asked if he’s “still with us.”

Soon after paramedics arrived, Smith’s body went limp. Police and medical personnel then hurriedly removed the restraints and moved his body onto a stretcher before loading him into the back of an ambulance. Smith died at the hospital, according to records. On Nov. 30, the chief medical examiner for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services determined that Smith died of “sudden cardiopulmonary arrest” due to factors including “prone restraint” and cocaine and alcohol use.

But the police narrative stated only that “while officers were attempting to transport him for mental evaluation, the subject became combative and collapsed,” excluding the fact that the police used Ripp Hobble restraints on him.

Warnings about restraints

Late in the evening on Sept. 8, Smith’s sister Kimberly Suber was on her way home from work when she received a call from her father: Marcus was dead. Since they lived out of state, Suber had to identify her brother’s body by phone with the medical examiner, Amy L. Beard. When Suber saw his body, it was in a casket. She took photos of her brother and  noticed bruises, as well as what she believed to be signs of a struggle. Suber also saw an indentation on his forehead. Her observations were consistent with the medical examiner’s report on Smith, which documented “abrasions of the head and extremities as well as subcutaneous hemorrhages of the medial wrists.”

Suber told The Appeal that she thought “maybe the police beat him up.” But when she read media accounts of the incident describing her brother as a “suicidal” man who “collapsed and died,” she retained an attorney. The attorney arranged to see body camera footage of the night Smith was killed. That’s when the family found out he was Ripp Hobbled right before his death. “He died September the 8th, but we didn’t actually know he was hogtied until a month later,” Kimberly said. “It’s a nightmare for me to see … I would not want to see a dog die that way.”

Decades-old guidelines from federal and local law enforcement warn against restraining people who are intoxicated or behaving erratically because they are more susceptible to sudden death. “Where possible, avoid the use of maximally prone restraint techniques (e.g., hogtying),” advised the DOJ in a bulletin on “positional asphyxia—sudden death.”

The Greensboro Police Department’s handbook states that “at no time shall the wrists and ankles of an arrestee be linked together using the RIPP HOBBLE restraining device, unless the arrestee can be seated in an upright position.” An upright position can “prevent stress being placed on the arrestee’s chest muscles or diaphragm which might contribute to a positional asphyxia situation.” Smith was not upright but the city’s police chief, Wayne Scott, maintains that the officers in the Smith case did not violate departmental policy because it is meant to apply to people in custody who are being transported by officers. “Unfortunately, we never got to the point where we’re transporting Mr. Smith,” Scott said. However, what’s known about Smith’s treatment makes it clear he was handled to death by officers in the process of attempting transport.

Calls for accountability

Greensboro activists are calling for Scott’s firing as well as the prosecution of the officers involved in Smith’s death. They are particularly angry about the Greensboro police’s statement that Smith simply “collapsed,” which Mayor Nancy Vaughan said “obviously was a lie.”

In late December, however, then-Guilford County District Attorney Doug Henderson declined to charge any of the officers in the Smith case just before he left office. The new DA, Avery Crump, who is the county’s first female DA as well as its first Black DA, did not respond to a request for comment.

Smith’s family says their grief is deepened by law enforcement and the media’s portrayal of their lost loved one as a suicidal homeless man who encountered police and then simply collapsed and died. Marcus Hyde, an organizer for the Homeless Union of Greensboro, knows Smith’s family and knew Smith. Hyde told The Appeal that although Smith struggled with homelessness, he was well-known for his generosity. Hyde said Smith often cut hair free of charge for people experiencing homelessness. “Unfortunately we have police that have a history of violence against Black folks in Greensboro,” Hyde said.

But the search for justice for Smith is far from over, even though the Greensboro City Council had, until recently, been silent on his death. Suber said she found the council’s unresponsiveness “sickening.” But at an emotional City Council meeting on April 1, city officials said they may commission an independent investigation into Smith’s death modeled on the inquiry into the Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacist rally in 2017 that led to dozens of injuries and the death of activist Heather Heyer.

Smith’s family told The Appeal that the proposal of an investigation instead of accountability or change in the Greensboro Police Department is mere symbolism.  “This is not going to end, not even with an investigation,” Hyde told the council. “You have enough proof right now to say that Chief Scott is incompetent.”

At the meeting, Councilmember Sharon Hightower noted that she requested an investigation months ago and was ignored. “We just want a little bit of peace, that’s it,” Suber told the council. Smith’s mother yelled from the audience, “We’re tired of wondering, we’ve been wondering since September…We can’t go to bed at night and sleep good!”  Suber told The Appeal that even though Smith suffered a horrible fate at the hands of the police, “my brother died with dignity and grace.” She said her brother was kind to the police as he pleaded for help. She’s glad, she said, that he was true to himself until the very end.