One year ago at midnight, a 38-year-old Black man named Marcus Deon Smith was wandering in and out of downtown traffic in Greensboro as the North Carolina Folk Festival concluded for the night. Smith, a beloved member of the Greensboro homeless community, was high on drugs and experiencing a mental crisis when eight Greensboro police officers attempted to deal with his obvious psychological distress. Smith, who was known as a gentle, nonviolent man, frantically pleaded with the officers, repeatedly saying, “Please help me sir,” and asking to be taken to the hospital. The officers, including two sergeants, called an ambulance, and while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, they asked Smith to get in the back of one of the police cars and told him they would take him to the hospital. Smith voluntarily entered the car, but after a short period of time of being alone with no one driving him to the hospital, he began to panic and thrash around because he wanted to get out. He tried to open the door of the car, but it was locked, so he banged his hand against the window to get the officers’ attention. Smith was not under arrest and had not committed a crime.
Officer Robert Duncan then escalated the situation, telling his fellow officers, “We probably ought to RIPP Hobble him.” (A RIPP Hobble is a restraint device that consists of a belt-like strap that is placed around an arrestee’s ankles to restrain his feet. The other end of the strap contains a hook and can be attached to the arrestee’s handcuffs.)
The officers then opened the door of the car and Smith quickly got out. He did not kick or hit or threaten any of the officers. Nevertheless, Duncan grabbed Smith, and he and several of the other officers forced Smith down to the ground and then rolled him onto his stomach. Smith cried out in pain and said, “Please don’t do that!” and “I’m not resisting!” He was grunting and groaning and moving his body, but he was not actively resisting the officers. Duncan then handcuffed Smith’s hands behind his back.
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Officer Justin Payne then grabbed Smith’s ankles and violently pushed his feet toward his hands, bending Smith’s knees well beyond a 90-degree angle. Payne pushed Smith’s feet all the way to the point where they were touching his handcuffed hands at the small of his back and Duncan and two of the other officers then used the RIPP Hobble to bind Smith’s hands to his feet behind his back while Payne continued to push Smith’s feet toward his back, causing Smith’s knees to continue to be bent well beyond a 90-degree angle. The officers then tightened the strap on the RIPP Hobble so tightly that Smith’s shoulders and knees were suspended above the ground. This placed extreme stress on his chest and severely compromised his ability to breathe; Smith was wheezing, moaning, groaning, gasping for air, and in obvious respiratory and physical distress. His breathing quickly became strained, and less than half a minute later he was unable to breathe, his eyes were closed and he was unresponsive.
Shortly before this violent hogtying, two Guilford County Emergency Medical Service paramedics arrived on the scene. After a Greensboro Police Department (GPD) officer briefed Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) Ashley Abbott about Smith’s behavior, she asked, “Is he a Black guy?” to which the officer responded, “Yes.” The EMTs were standing next to Smith during the hogtying and failed, like the GPD sergeants on the scene, to intervene on his behalf, and waited more than two minutes after Smith became unresponsive to unsuccessfully attempt to resuscitate him. Smith was particularly vulnerable to the potentially lethal consequences of hogtying and prone restraint because of his delusional and agitated mental state. Smith was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly thereafter.
A few hours after Smith was killed on September 8, 2018, the GPD issued a press release approved by Chief Wayne Scott, that began what would develop into a full-blown official cover-up that continues to this day. The release, which was deceptively titled, “Man who collapsed in police custody dies,” also falsely claimed that Smith was “suicidal” and “combative,” and made no mention of the hogtying.
The GPD refused to release any additional information, but people who knew Smith spoke about how he was a regular at the Interactive Resource Center (IRC), which served the Greensboro homeless community, and was known as the IRC barber because he often cut hair for the residents. Michelle Kennedy, who was the executive director of IRC and also a member of the Greensboro City Council, said that Smith “impacted a lot of people,” while the volunteer coordinator of the IRC, Tiffany Dumas, said, “He was so intelligent. He treated you with dignity whether you were gay, straight or transgender. He was a very inspirational leader in this community” who “gave so much to everyone else.”
Smith came from a strong and loving family, and through their grief, they sought answers about the circumstances of his death. It was discovered that the GPD had numerous body camera videos from the eight officers on the scene, and in October 2018, Smith’s father George, accompanied by his North Carolina attorney Graham Holt, courageously watched the tapes. As they watched, it became clear, as Smith’s father kept repeating, “They’re killing him. They’re killing him!”
Smith’s family, along with the Homeless Union of Greensboro, the Beloved Community Center, Democracy Greensboro, the League of Women Voters, and other church and community groups and leaders, particularly those from Greensboro’s large Black community, were outraged by the revelation that Smith was hogtied and that the GPD had callously covered up this critical fact. These groups came together with attorney Holt to organize around Smith’s killing and to demand action.
In November 2018, the family and the coalition of concerned individuals and organizations held a press conference and delivered separate public statements to the Greensboro City Council. In its statement, the family asserted that Smith “was tied up like an animal,” and that he
posed no threat to these police officials. He submitted himself willingly and begged for help, and instead was hogtied, and died as a result. He wasn’t deserving of this. In fact, no human being should be treated this way, especially if all he asked was to be helped in his last moments of his life. In the time that he encountered these police officials, every moment counted, and they did nothing.
The coalition’s statement condemned the use of hogtying:
It is unfathomable that the city could endorse or defend such practices when there is substantial medical evidence showing that hogtying individuals puts them at severe risk of positional asphyxia and consequently death.
The family and the coalition demanded a full investigation, that the officers involved be held accountable and that the use of hogtying be banned.
Hoping to tamp down the rising tide of outrage, the GPD responded swiftly. In its press release, the GPD claimed that the Guilford County District Attorney’s office had determined there to be “no criminal liability,” that “the officers acted at all times within the scope of their duties and with justification under all applicable laws,” and that a “GPD internal review was completed and no violations of policy were found.”
This strategy only fueled the anger of the community, and attorney Holt found a damning directive on the GPD website:
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, or on their side. If this is done, the knees of the arrestee will not be bent more than 90 degrees (unless extenuating circumstances exist) to prevent stress being placed on the arrestee’s chest muscles or diaphragm which might contribute to a positional asphyxia situation….
Further investigation established that the manufacturer of the RIPP Hobble provided a bold-faced warning with the product that reads: “NEVER Hog-Tie a Prisoner.”
Chief Scott, a white GPD lifer who had been chosen over a Black woman candidate years before, personally responded with a public statement. After admitting for the first time that Smith was “Rip Hobbled,” Scott claimed that the GPD directive was “designed for when we’re transporting persons in custody. Unfortunately, we never got to the point where we were transporting Mr. Smith,” and that the Department told their officers to “follow the recommendations of the manufacturer” and “learn the proper techniques in training.”
The next day, the North Carolina State Medical Examiner released Smith’s autopsy report. The manner of death was found to be “homicide” (i.e. death at the hand of another) as a result of “sudden cardiopulmonary arrest due to prone restraint; N-Ethylpentalone, cocaine, and alcohol use; and hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.” After a local court ordered the public release of the body camera videos, the GPD publicly posted them with a deceptive introduction narrated by Chief Scott.
The coalition immediately called for a mass “Justice for Marcus Smith” meeting at the Shiloh Baptist Church. In its call, the coalition demanded an official apology and compensation for the family, “serious and swift consequences for all involved,” including Chief Scott, the banning of hogtying and “training [of] officers to handle mental health issues non-violently.” The coalition also broadened its demands to include a “legitimate process for investigating serious allegations of police misconduct and excessive force,” and “reform [of] the culture and policies of the GPD.”
Mayor Nancy Vaughan, no stranger to police-related controversy, attended the packed meeting at Shiloh. While not apologizing for Smith’s death, she did say, amid calls for Scott’s resignation, that, “I have great concerns on how this was handled. I have concerns about that first press release that was put out, I want answers on why it was said that he was suicidal and dropped to the ground, that obviously was a lie and I think that has to be answered.”
Another standing-room-only crowd attended a meeting of the Greensboro City Council the next day. Dozens of Smith’s supporters spoke passionately, again demanding the firing of the officers and Chief Scott, and shouting down council members who spoke in uncritical defense of the officers. During the meeting, which lasted several hours, Mayor Vaughan announced that the previous Friday, Chief Scott “issued a Special Order” for the GPD to end the use of hogtying, explore alternative methods for restraint and hire mental health workers.
This announcement did little to pacify the Justice for Marcus Smith movement. The involved officers and the chief remained on the job, and the district attorney officially announced in January 2019 that no criminal charges would be brought. Supporters continued to pack city council meetings, and in early April, three council members called for an independent investigation, a call that the mayor claimed to support. The council’s vote was scheduled for April 16.
Meanwhile, the Smith family, frustrated by the delay and cover-up, assembled a legal team that included lawyers from the People’s Law Office in Chicago* to work with Holt and highly respected Greensboro civil rights lawyer Lewis Pitts. On April 10, 2019, the Smith family’s legal team filed a federal civil rights suit, which not only named the eight GPD officers and two EMTs directly involved in Smith’s death, but also joined the City of Greensboro as a defendant for the GPD’s hogtying policies and training, its callous treatment of persons in mental crisis, its history of racially motivated misconduct and for its blatant cover-up of the killing of Smith.
The mayor seized on the filing as a pretext to call off the vote on the independent investigation, and hired Mullins Duncan Harrell & Russell PLLC, a high-priced private law firm, to fight the case. In June, the City refused to produce information about the GPD’s purchase of the RIPP Hobble in response to a public information request, and all the defendants in the civil rights suit moved to dismiss the case, hiding behind the badly misapplied doctrine of qualified immunity and refusing to even acknowledge that what in fact the officers did to Smith was hogtying. The Smith lawyers recently responded to these motions by detailing the brutal hogtying, the GPD’s obvious failure to have proper preventive policies and training, and by addressing the specific legal arguments raised. The team also addressed the obvious elephant in the room — the racist nature of hogtying and its history as a method of brutal restraint and punishment of enslaved Black Americans in the antebellum South. A decision from Federal District Court Judge Loretta Biggs is expected early this fall.
As the lawyers and activists have repeatedly emphasized, the Marcus Smith case is unfolding in a city with a history of racially motivated police brutality and misconduct. In the past 50 years, Greensboro has seen the brutal attack of protesting students at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University by the National Guard; the massacre of five anti-Klan demonstrators by a caravan of white supremacists led by a GPD informant; widespread racial discrimination within the GPD and by its officers when stopping, searching and arresting Black citizens; and numerous incidents of police brutality and abuse.
This past month, Chief Scott resigned, effective on January 31, 2020, but Justice for Marcus Smith is still an unrequited demand. The Smith case, which is all too similar to the Eric Garner case in New York, and the recent hogtying case in Dallas, once again puts Greensboro in a harsh local and national spotlight, and it once again appears, as local minister and activist Nelson Johnson has so aptly stated, Greensboro unfortunately continues to have “a liberal veneer but a reactionary underbelly.”
*Full disclosure: The author of this piece is one of the lawyers involved in filing the April 2019 federal civil rights suit.