The family of a black man who died in Sacramento police custody is questioning whether officers should have sought medical care before transporting him to jail.
Police department video released on Wednesday show Brandon Smith breathing heavily and complaining of “having a heart attack” as officers heft him into the back of a patrol wagon.
Smith’s family and local Black Lives Matter activists believe law enforcement’s handling of the 30-year-old contributed to his death on the afternoon of June 6. They’re asking for more information.
“We don’t know why, we don’t know how. The family hasn’t been told what happened,” said Justin Ward, an attorney representing the family.
Police body camera footage of the incident was released on Wednesday and begins with Smith handcuffed and lying face-down on the floor of a Sacramento detox center. Parole agents, who were in in the process of booking Smith for public intoxication, requested a police transport from an officer already on the scene.
The officer, who has not been identified by the department, lifts Smith up from the floor. “I don’t want you to get hurt,” he says. “We’re going to get you some help, come on”
After some effort, the officer leads Smith toward a patrol wagon. Smith grunts. “I feel like I’m having a heart attack,” he says.
At the patrol wagon, someone helping Smith into the back says, “Get your ass up in there.”
“Watch your head, low ceilings,” the officer tells Smith.
As they load him inside, his head and body slam into the back wall, then he falls onto the metal floor.
After a nearly seven minute drive, the officer pulls over outside the Sacramento County Main Jail and checks on Smith, who is unresponsive. The officer performs CPR. But Smith was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
The department is investigating the incident. Spokesperson Vance Chandler said all officers are trained to evaluate subjects in custody and determine if they need medical attention, adding that the officer was monitoring Smith as he drove the patrol wagon.
“As [the officer] noticed a change in his movement he recognized that the subject was unresponsive and called for advanced life care,” Chandler said.
According to police department protocol for individuals in custody, anyone suffering from medical distress — marked by panic, inconsistent breathing and aggressive behavior, among other things — should be placed in a seated or supine position and kept calm until emergency services arrive.
Smith’s mother, Yolanda Ford, said at a press conference on Wednesday that she doesn’t even know why her son was being taken to the county jail.
“I took my son, handed him over to his parole officer,” she said, describing what happened to Smith earlier that day. “She promised me my son would be transported to a housing facility.”
Ford claims that she dropped Smith off at the detox facility at 11 a.m. on June 6, and that she got a call from a parole officer at 3:32 p.m. saying that her son had died.
“I don’t understand how he went from a parole officer to going to county jail,” she said.
Tanya Faison with the Sacramento chapter of Black Lives Matter said watching the way police dealt with Smith was traumatizing.
“They treated his cries as insignificant, and then they threw him into the back of that wagon,” she said. “He hit his head, and they acted like it was nothing. It was a lot of negligence. It was a lot of violence. It was really disturbing.”
Police said in a statement that they are committed to “a thorough, fact-based investigation,” which will be conducted by the department’s homicide unit and monitored by investigators from the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office.
The Sacramento County Coroner’s Office did not find trauma as the cause of death. Coroner Kimberly Gin said via email that the office won’t issue an autopsy report until toxicology testing is complete.
The family’s attorney said it will likely conduct an independent autopsy, and may pursue litigation. “At this point, what the family is trying to do is get answers,” Ward said. “It’s not about suing anybody right now, it’s about getting answers.”
Smith’s brother, Brionne Mays, said at a City Council meeting on Tuesday that the way police treated Smith is indicative of a larger problem in the police force.
“You guys are here to protect us, right? Protect and serve? That’s what the police force is, right?” he asked city officials while standing in front of them. “We do want justice for Brandon Smith, and the countless number of humans that that had happened to before, which I’m not gonna name. It’s too many.”