GREENSBORO — Faced with disturbing descriptions of police restraining multiple people by binding their hands to their feet behind them — commonly known as “hogtying” — the City Council has asked to view videos from 50 such incidents currently at the heart of a federal lawsuit.
The videos, captured by officer-worn cameras in the months prior to the death of Marcus Smith while in police custody, are described in a motion filed by lawyers for Smith’s family, which is suing the city, Guilford County, eight police officers and two paramedics for wrongful death.
For Smith, an unarmed Black man, the way he was restrained on a September night in 2018 contributed to his death, according to the state medical examiner.
One of the most revelatory aspects to emerge during he family’s lawsuit is that in the years prior to the tragedy, police used that manner of restraint over 250 times.
Council members said Monday during their regular business meeting that they should be able to review videos of those incidents even though state law restricts who is allowed to see body-camera footage.
City Attorney Chuck Watts said the city is in a legally-awkward situation. A judge ordered the city to turn over videos in the 50 incidents to the Smith legal team as long as they remain under seal. The judge ruled such an action would not violate a state law prohibiting the distribution of the video.
Watts said while the city was ordered to turn over the video, it still has to respect state law when it comes to the council. And that means Watts must ask a judge for permission to show the footage to council members.
“The judge did not order us to provide it to you,” he said. “It was ordered to be provided to the other side.”
That didn’t sit well with Councilwoman Michelle Kennedy.
“Is it typical when you’re involved in a legal matter that you don’t have access to the materials you’re providing to the other side?” she asked.
Watts replied: “I believe that we can get access to it. I just believe that it’s going to take the process.”
Councilman Justin Outling said that he believes the videos, while not necessarily proving the Smith family’s case, could help the city decide whether to offer a settlement.
“It’s going to be an important consideration perhaps in evaluating the case,” Outling said.
The discussion comes amid continuing calls for the city to settle the lawsuit.
Smith died after Greensboro police excessively restrained the homeless man while in the midst of what appeared to be a mental health breakdown almost three years ago on a downtown street.
Since then, his death has become a flashpoint for many who say it’s no different than the case of George Floyd, another unarmed Black man who was also killed in police custody.
Greensboro police have long since abandoned the practice of binding a person’s hands and feet together behind their back, but questions about the conduct of officers and the people they serve and protect, particularly minorities, have lingered. Those questions have only continued to magnify as more is revealed about how police operated in the years before Smith’s death.
On Monday, the Smith family attorneys asked for video from 28 additional incidents involving the eight officers named as defendants in the case.
In the legal brief requesting the video, attorneys for Smith’s family describe the footage as “highly disturbing.”
Lawyers say they began on July 20 reviewing videos from the 50 incidents, which occurred roughly from December 2017 to September 2018.
Although their most thorough descriptions of the videos remain sealed under a protective order, the attorneys revealed some of what is shown.
“On one occasion,” the legal brief says, “an officer has their knee on the neck of a pregnant Black female victim, similar to how George Floyd was fatally restrained, for more than two minutes while she is being hogtied. She is prone and crying out that she can’t breathe.”
The brief goes on to describe another incident in which “an elderly woman suffering from dementia” is similarly subdued.
According to the brief, “officers put pressure put on the head, back, buttocks on numerous occasions while hogtying.”
“In seven incidents, the victim cried out that they could not breathe,” the brief said. “Victims were left in a prone position after hogtying on numerous occasions. Several hogtied victims were placed face down in a squad car.”
Also this week, the Smith legal team celebrated what it considers a major victory when a judge ruled that attorneys did not violate a protective order designed to keep evidence confidential when they released some transcripts of depositions to a local journalist.
The city had asked a judge to punish the Smith family attorneys for divulging the information.
Federal magistrate Judge Joe L. Webster ruled, however, that the attorneys did not do anything improper.
“From the court’s review of the record, it appears that the transcripts shared were redacted transcripts with confidential information removed, as well as exhibits that were otherwise publicly available,” Webster wrote.
Contact Richard M. Barron at 336-373-7371 and follow @BarronBizNR on Twitter.