Police used this dangerous restraint during a fatal arrest, so why isn't anyone talking about it?

The death of Christopher Robert Hensley in the custody of Fletcher, North Carolina, police is raising new questions about the use of deadly restraint by law enforcement. In this episode of Police Accountability Report, Taya Graham and Stephen Janis talk to independent pathologist Cyril Wecht, who reviewed footage of the arrest, to shed light on the circumstances surrounding Hensley’s death. We ask questions of North Carolina law enforcement officials to learn why cops are still using a tactic that has been widely recognized as both dangerous and deadly.

Pre-Production/Studio: Stephen Janis
Post-Production: Adam Coley


Transcript

Taya Graham:  Hello. My name is Taya Graham, and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. As I always make clear, this show has a single purpose: holding the politically powerful institution of policing accountable. And to do so, we don’t just focus on the bad behavior of individual cops. Instead, we examine the system that makes bad policing possible. And today we will do so by bringing you breaking news on a shocking in-custody death at the hands of police in North Carolina that has received little attention, but warrants further investigation.

As you can see in the video we are showing now, Fletcher, North Carolina, police officers knelt on the back of a man for at least four minutes, until he was unresponsive. And I have to warn you, this video is disturbing. The man later died, but the police have said little. But despite their silence, we obtained this video of his death in custody, which suggests that a dangerous and often deadly police tactic known as prone restraint may have caused his death. The reason we are bringing this case to your attention is because of its similarities to the case of George Floyd and Tom Black and others, where police have sat on top of or otherwise laid across a person, causing downward pressure on their lungs, causing what’s known as positional asphyxiation.

It is a well-known, dangerous police tactic that has been all but banned in some areas, but remains common practice elsewhere, which is why we sent the evidence to a noted independent pathologist who watched the video and who will share his thoughts on how this man died, why police may be culpable, and what should be done to prevent this from happening in the future. But more importantly, we wanted to bring this case to your attention, our viewers, as it has otherwise been ignored, and it needs exposure to ensure local officials or an independent body investigate it properly, especially given the evidence seen here in this video.

But first I want you to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct, please email it to us privately at par@therealnews.com, and please like, share, and comment on our videos. You know I do read your comments and appreciate them. And of course you can always reach out to me directly @tayasbaltimore on Facebook or Twitter. And of course, if you can, there is a Patreon donate link pinned below, so we do have some extras there for our PAR family.

Now, as you know, we usually publish the Police Accountability Report on our regularly scheduled time slot of 9:00 PM Eastern time. But when a viewer sent us this video of a man who died in police custody, we felt we had to produce a breaking news piece because the case has received little attention, and many questions about what happened remain unanswered.

What we do know is this: In the evening of June 15, Fletcher, North Carolina, police received a 911 call from a woman who said her husband was preventing her from leaving their apartment. The caller said she thought the man was on drugs. According to reporting from the local media, the man in question was Christopher Robert Hensley, a 35-year-old youth pastor with two young children. According to law enforcement, Hensley grew combative with police when they arrived. Officials say they fought with Hensley and tasered him. However, there are few details about what that means or why it leads to what you are seeing in this video.

I want to warn you before I show it that what you are about to see is very disturbing. The images you are watching were taken by a resident of the apartment complex where the arrest occurred and was subsequently posted on Facebook. They show roughly eight or nine Fletcher police officers and Henderson County Sheriff’s officers restraining Hensley, who is prone on the ground, handcuffed. As several officers lean on his back, Fletcher can be heard pleading for help. As you can see, he’s moving underneath the officers who continue to put downward pressure on his body. Take a look.

[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]

Audio/Video:  [shouting in pain][inaudible].

[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]

Taya Graham:  Now after roughly four minutes and 30 seconds of putting downward pressure on Hensley, police suddenly turn him over and begin administering CPR. Just watch.

[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]

Speaker:  [clearing throat] Oh my God. [inaudible].

[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]

Taya Graham:  It’s important to know that this video was recorded 10 to 15 minutes into the interaction with police. So it is possible these officers had him in prone restraint for even longer than the four and a half minutes that were caught on camera. However, in our conversation with the noted forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, he confirmed that it can take as little as four minutes to deprive someone of oxygen and cause death.

Now, it’s also worth noting that it’s well known that placing downward pressure on someone’s back when prone is dangerous. When someone is prone on the ground, weight applied to the back prevents the lungs from inflating. This results in a condition known as positional asphyxiation or riot-crush. The downward pressure makes it impossible for the diaphragm to expand and the lungs to absorb oxygen, which can result in death by suffocation. It’s also the same tactic that led to the death of George Floyd in Minnesota and Anton Black in Greensboro, Maryland, right here.

Which raises an important question: Why did multiple officers sit on his back? And why, given the general awareness of the dangers of positional asphyxia, did the officers continue to apply their body weight and pressure? I mean, as horrible as this is to watch, you can see Mr. Fletcher’s legs flailing. He is literally fighting to breathe as the officers casually, and apparently indifferently, continue to apply downward pressure. Someone is even captured in the video watching this while enjoying a smoke.

But even though this case raises these troubling questions about police use of force, there has been little mention of this notoriously dangerous police tactic, or exactly why the officers felt compelled to apply it in such a reckless manner. In fact, like many police-involved deaths, officially local law enforcement has said little about the case, and the local media has made little effort to push back on their silence. Which is why we decided to do this breaking news story.

Police did put out a press release that said, “Hensley became unresponsive after he was placed in handcuffs.” But they did not address or mention what we have seen in this video. And local news reports offered little more than the official police response in a conveniently leaked 911 call. So myself and my reporting partner Stephen Janis have been working the phones and talking to experts about the evidence that is publicly available. And to discuss our findings I’m joined by Stephen, who is standing by now. Stephen, thank you for joining us.

Stephen Janis:  Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Taya Graham:  So Stephen, as I already mentioned, we immediately suspect that this might be positional asphyxiation. So you reached out to noted pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, who has conducted many high profile autopsies. Tell us what you sent him, and what did he say?

Stephen Janis:  Right. I sent Dr. Wecht the video that you’ve already seen showing the cops sitting on top of Mr. Hensley and had him analyze it, look at it from his perspective as a medical pathologist, and what he said was pretty, pretty damning. Let’s listen.

[AUDIO CLIP BEGINS]

Dr. Cyril Wecht:  My initial impression is that this case is almost a twin of the George Floyd, Derek Chauvin situation. It is as brutal, as barbaric as that was, in a way more so because of the multiplicity of officers involved. You have this man on the ground. I do not know what the circumstances were. Whatever they were, even if he were a fleeing felon, you’ve got six, eight officers there. He’s not going anywhere. You see him struggling and moving and kicking, and it’s obvious that he can’t breathe. He’s face down.

Have they not lived in America? Have they not seen and read about the George Floyd case? Are they not aware of positional asphyxiation? Go and find out from that police department, locally Fletcher, North Carolina, and the State of North Carolina, what they are teaching cops now in terms of positioning people and so on.

So you have him, whatever he’s done, whatever you’re thinking, let him sit up. Let him sit up. Where the hell is he going? You’ve got eight officers there, and they’re all solid looking guys. So let him sit up and breathe.

[AUDIO CLIP ENDS]

Stephen Janis:  So clearly, Dr. Wecht believes that this is positional asphyxiation. He is a noted pathologist. He has a long history of making judgements on these types of cases. So I think it’s pretty strong science what he’s saying, and we should definitely pay attention to what he thinks.

Taya Graham:  See, that’s interesting. I noticed he mentioned training standards. You’ve been trying to get in touch with various agencies in North Carolina about the use of prone restraint. What have you heard, and what are they saying?

Stephen Janis:  I reached out to the agency that trains police and certifies them in North Carolina, and they were very emphatic. They finally got back to me in an email and said they do not train officers to do prone restraint beyond handcuffs. In other words, once a suspect is handcuffed, they’re supposed to not have him or she prone anymore. They’re very emphatic about that. I’m showing the email on the screen. Their answer was very firm: “We do not train people to use prone restraint.” But of course, as you can see, that’s exactly what happened.

Taya Graham:  Now I know the North Carolina State Police are investigating Mr. Hensley’s death. We’ve actually reported on cases before where it appeared to be positional asphyxiation, but authorities have concluded otherwise. What should we expect from the official investigation?

Stephen Janis:  One thing that’s interesting is that we don’t see the five to 10 minutes prior to the camera running from the person who was filming it on Facebook. So they could just conjure some sort of combative person, or some [inaudible] terror or something that we don’t see and that we can’t really prove, and it’d be based upon their word, probably. I don’t know if there are other witnesses.

The second thing they’re going to talk about is what was in his system. I think they’ll wait for the toxicology, and come back and try to make some innuendo that there were drugs in this system. We don’t know. We only know from the 911 call, but we don’t know for sure. I think they’re definitely going to try to use that.

And then finally they might come up with something like excited delirium that they use in cases where, even though they know they’re responsible, they have to conjure a reason that they’re not.

These are the things to look out for. I promise you we will continue to report on it to make sure there’s some counter narrative to the police narrative.

Taya Graham:  Now I want to let everyone know we reached out to Mr. Hensley’s family. They told us they hold police accountable for their loved one’s death and that they will be releasing evidence soon to prove their case. And they have also consulted a pathologist to do an independent autopsy. They also say they would be able to speak to us after the funeral.

His mother, as well as a friend of the family, said to me that Mr. Hensley was a great man, loved by his family and friends. His mother also said this, “The level of corruption is beyond human comprehension. I cannot bring my son back, but all of his rights were violated. This cannot continue to happen. He was not given proper CPR or care. Even after he went unconscious from the lack of oxygen and blood supply to his heart, they beat him up when his legs were moving, trying to get air into his diaphragm, and they punched his legs. My son was murdered for no reason. It is not up to the police to do this.”

Unfortunately, I have to agree. I want to offer my sincere condolences to the Hensley family and to all his friends.

But in the meantime, we will keep investigating and providing updates with our live stream, our social media accounts, or through a more expansive show at a later date. I urge all of you to share this video or contact any relevant law enforcement officials and ask that as much information as possible be released to the public and to the family.

Thank you so much for joining us for this breaking news edition of the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.

Taya Graham

Host & Producer
Taya Graham is an award-winning investigative reporter who has covered U.S. politics, local government, and the criminal justice system. She is the host of TRNN's "Police Accountability Report," and producer and co-creator of the award-winning podcast "Truth and Reconciliation" on Baltimore's NPR affiliate WYPR. She has written extensively for a variety of publications including the Afro American Newspaper, the oldest black-owned publication in the country, and was a frequent contributor to Morgan State Radio at a historic HBCU. She has also produced two documentaries, including the feature-length film "The Friendliest Town." Although her reporting focuses on the criminal justice system and government accountability, she has provided on the ground coverage of presidential primaries and elections as well as local and state campaigns. Follow her on Twitter.

Stephen Janis

Host & Producer
Stephen Janis is an award winning investigative reporter turned documentary filmmaker. His first feature film, The Friendliest Town was distributed by Gravitas Ventures and won an award of distinction from The Impact Doc Film Festival, and a humanitarian award from The Indie Film Fest. He is the co-host and creator of The Police Accountability Report on The Real News Network, which has received more than 10,000,000 views on YouTube. His work as a reporter has been featured on a variety of national shows including the Netflix reboot of Unsolved Mysteries, Dead of Night on Investigation Discovery Channel, Relentless on NBC, and Sins of the City on TV One.

He has co-authored several books on policing, corruption, and the root causes of violence including Why Do We Kill: The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore and You Can’t Stop Murder: Truths about Policing in Baltimore and Beyond. He is also the co-host of the true crime podcast Land of the Unsolved. Prior to joining The Real News, Janis won three Capital Emmys for investigative series working as an investigative producer for WBFF. Follow him on Twitter.