As the sun began to rise on a sweltering summer morning in Las Vegas last year, a police officer spotted Byron Williams bicycling along a road west of downtown.
The bike did not have a light on it, so officers flipped on their siren and shouted for him to stop. Williams fled through a vacant lot and over a wall before complying with orders to drop face down in the dirt, where officers used their hands and knees to pin him down. "I can't breathe," he gasped. He repeated it 17 times before he later lapsed into unconsciousness and died.
Eric Garner, another Black man, had said the same three anguished words in 2014 after a police officer who had stopped him for selling untaxed cigarettes held him in a chokehold on a New York sidewalk. "I can't breathe," George Floyd pleaded in May, appealing to the Minneapolis police officer who responded to reports of a phony $20 bill and planted a knee in the back of his neck until his life had slipped away.
Floyd's dying words have prompted a national outcry over law enforcement's deadly toll on African American people, and they have united much of the country in a sense of outrage that a police officer would not heed a man's appeal for something as basic as air.
But while the cases of Garner and Floyd shocked the nation, dozens of other incidents with a remarkable common denominator have gone widely unacknowledged. Over the past decade, The New York Times found, at least 70 people have died in law enforcement custody after saying the same words — "I can't breathe."
The dead ranged in age from 19 to 65. The majority of them had been stopped or held over nonviolent infractions, 911 calls about suspicious behaviour or concerns about their mental health. More than half were Black.
Dozens of videos, court documents, autopsies and police reports reviewed in these cases — involving a range of people who died in confrontations with officers on the street, in local jails or in their homes — show a pattern of aggressive tactics that ignored prevailing safety precautions while embracing dubious science that suggested that people pleading for air do not need urgent intervention.
In some of the "I can't breathe" cases, officers restrained detainees by the neck, hogtied them, shocked them with a Taser multiple times or covered their heads with mesh hoods designed to prevent spitting or biting. Most frequently, officers pushed them face down on the ground and held them prone with their body weight.
Not all of the cases involved police restraints. Some were deaths that occurred after detainees' protests that they could not breathe — perhaps because of a medical problem or drug intoxication — were discounted or ignored. Some people pleaded for hours for help before they died.
Among those who died after declaring "I can't breathe" were a chemical engineer in Mississippi, a former real estate agent in California, a meat salesman in Florida and a drummer at a church in Washington state. One was an active-duty soldier who had survived two tours in Iraq. One was a registered nurse. One was a doctor.
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In nearly half of the cases The Times reviewed, the people who died after being restrained, including Williams, were already at risk as a result of drug intoxication. Others were having a mental health episode or medical issues such as pneumonia or heart failure. Some of them presented a significant challenge to officers, fleeing or fighting.
Departments across the United States have banned some of the most dangerous restraint techniques, such as hogtying, and restricted the use of others, including chokeholds, to only the most extreme circumstances — those moments when officers are in fear for their lives. They have for years warned officers about the risks of moves such as facedown compression holds. But the restraints continue to be used as a result of poor training, gaps in policies or the reality that officers sometimes struggle with people who fight hard and threaten to overpower them.
Many of the cases suggest a widespread belief that persists in departments across the country that a person being detained who says "I can't breathe" is lying or exaggerating, even if multiple officers are using pressure to restrain the person. Police officers, who for generations have been taught that a person who can talk can also breathe, regularly cited that bit of conventional wisdom to dismiss complaints of arrestees who were dying in front of them, records and interviews show.
That dubious claim was photocopied and posted on a bulletin board at the Montgomery County Jail in Dayton, Ohio, in 2018. "If you can talk then you obviously can [expletive] breathe," the sign said.
Federal officials have long warned about factors that can cause suffocations in custody, and for the past five years, a federal law has required local police agencies to report all in-custody deaths to the Justice Department or face the loss of federal law enforcement funding.
But the Justice Department, under both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump, has been slow to enforce the law, the agency's inspector general found in a 2018 report. Though there has been only scattershot reporting by departments, not a single dollar has been withheld.
Autopsies have repeatedly identified links between the actions of officers and the deaths of detainees who struggled for air, even when other medical issues such as heart disease and drug use were contributing or primary factors. But government investigations often found that the detainees were acting erratically or aggressively and that the officers were therefore justified in their actions.
Only a small fraction of officers have faced criminal charges, and almost none have been convicted.
In the case of Williams in Las Vegas last year, Police Department investigators determined that the officers did not violate the law. But the death triggered immediate changes, said Lt. Erik Lloyd of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's force investigations team.
Officers are not medical doctors and may believe that someone who says "I can't breathe" may be trying to escape, he said.
To alleviate potential dangers, officers are told now to promptly get detainees off their stomachs and onto their sides — or up to a sitting or standing position. They are also told to call for medical help if someone has distressed breathing.
"Since the death of Mr. Williams, our department has been extremely aware of someone saying, 'I can't breathe,'" Lloyd said. "We have changed the attitude of patrol officers."
For the relatives of many of the men and women who died under similar circumstances in police custody, watching the video of Floyd's arrest in Minneapolis has felt painfully familiar. Silvia Soto's husband, Marshall Miles, died in 2018 in Sacramento County, California, after being pinned down by sheriff's deputies at a jail. She said she had been feeling both heartbroken and comforted amid the national outrage.
"I don't feel alone anymore," Soto said.
Written by: Mike Baker, Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Manny Fernandez and Michael LaForgia
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES