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The death of Ronald Greene in Louisiana police custody, explained

New body cam footage dramatically differs from the original 2019 police report.

A Black man in a black T-shirt, cap, and white mask carries a sign with a photo of Ronald Greene in front of a crowd at a large outdoor plaza.
Sean Greene, brother of Ronald Greene, at a Washington, DC, march against police brutality in August 2020.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Last week, the Associated Press obtained police body camera footage of the arrest of Ronald Greene, a Black man who died in police custody in Louisiana after a car chase in 2019. The footage has revealed shocking brutality toward Greene, undermining the police’s account of what happened during the arrest — it indicates, experts say, a police cover-up of serious misconduct.

The incident, and the conflict between the official report and the video footage, also raises questions about the power and limitations of body cameras — a focal point of some criminal justice reform efforts — when it comes to ensuring that law enforcement is held accountable for misconduct.

Greene, a 49-year-old barber, died in police custody outside Monroe, Louisiana, in May 2019, following a police chase that began after Greene did not pull over for an unspecified traffic violation.

According to the AP, police initially told Greene’s family that he died on impact after crashing into a tree. Later, according to the same AP report, the state police “acknowledg[ed] only that Greene struggled with troopers and died on his way to the hospital.”

But the newly released footage, which lasts more than 46 minutes, reveals a prolonged struggle during which police repeatedly tased, punched, and choked Greene as they put him in handcuffs. The videos also show that he became unresponsive after a physical struggle which use-of-force experts say violates protocols for safely handling someone in handcuffs.

Greene died in police custody before arriving at a hospital, but the precise cause and timing of his death are unclear. Based on Greene’s condition upon arriving at the hospital, an emergency room doctor who saw Greene was skeptical of the troopers’ initial account that he had died during a car crash; an independent autopsy later commissioned by Greene’s family found severe injuries to his skull.

In May 2020, Greene’s family sued the police for wrongful death, and federal authorities opened a civil rights investigation into Greene’s death last fall. But Louisiana State Police declined to release the footage publicly for two years, saying that releasing it would undermine the investigative process into the incident.

However, after the AP released the body camera footage it obtained last week, the state police released what it said was all the related video, just days later.

With the release of the graphic footage, public scrutiny of the incident has reignited, and experts have weighed in on what appears to be misconduct at several levels of law enforcement.

Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of the Washington-based nonprofit Civil Rights Corps, told Vox that the effort to obstruct the reality of Greene’s treatment by police likely included “at least low-level police officers, high-level police officials, state politicians, government lawyers, and state and federal prosecutors.”

Karakatsanis also likened the incident to the high-profile allegations of a cover-up in the death of Laquan McDonald, who was shot to death by Chicago police in 2014. In that case, too, the official police report differed markedly from later footage, but while the officer who shot McDonald was convicted in his murder, fellow officers who were charged with covering up evidence were not convicted.

The release of the footage in the Greene case has brought national public attention to another incident of police brutality in which official accounts differ from other evidence of the events. Coupled with increased public support for broad police reforms and a presidential administration sympathetic to the cause, it’s possible that more substantial steps may be taken to hold law enforcement accountable in this case.

At the same time, however, the manner in which the Greene footage was released — only after journalists forced the issue into the national spotlight, a full two years after the incident was obscured by false and inaccurate statements by the police — serves as a reminder that body cameras are far from a silver bullet as an accountability tool.

Greene’s death is shrouded in mystery, but it’s clear he was brutalized

The now-public footage, from body and dashboard cameras, doesn’t provide a clear picture of everything that happened to Greene the night that he died. Nor does a newly released autopsy report, also obtained by the AP and released Friday, which stated that Greene’s head injuries and the manner in which he was detained contributed to his death; the report also found cocaine and alcohol in his system.

The report does not give a manner of death, which the AP’s Jim Mustian described as “a highly unusual move that did not make it clear whether Greene’s death could be deemed a homicide, an accident or undetermined.”

What is clear is that, at multiple junctures, Louisiana State Police did not accurately describe what happened — and they did deploy excessive force in handling Greene.

After police tried to pull Greene over for a traffic violation, he drove away from them at high speeds. Troopers told Greene’s family he died when he hit a tree, but the footage shows Greene conscious, speaking, and moving after his car stopped; it is unclear based on reports and footage exactly how his car came to a stop. The New York Times reports that, according to Greene’s family’s lawyer, an accident reconstruction expert concluded that the marks on the car — mostly on the rear driver’s side — were inconsistent with a fatal collision.

Footage shows that troopers opened Greene’s car door and immediately tased him.

As at least two troopers try to pull Greene out of the car, Greene can be heard saying, “Okay, okay. I’m sorry. I’m scared. Officer, I’m scared, I’m your brother, I’m scared.”

The troopers struggle to arrest Greene, and, as they do so, they repeatedly tase and punch him in the face and in the back, and appear to place him in a chokehold, the footage shows. Greene can be heard apologizing and crying out in distress throughout the situation.

At one point after Greene is handcuffed with his hands behind his back, he is dragged by his ankles and left in a prone position for more than nine minutes. “I hope this guy ain’t got fucking AIDS,” one of the troopers can be heard saying as he cleans blood off of himself.

Footage may reveal misconduct and even a cover-up, experts say

Use-of-force experts say that being handcuffed in the prone position makes it difficult for someone to breathe, and police officers are told to prevent someone from staying in the position too long for that reason.

“There’s nothing in any manual anywhere in the United States that allows for dragging an individual face down by their ankles,” Charles Ramsey, the former commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, said on CNN last week after observing the footage. “Clearly this is a case of excessive force, between the tasing, kicking, beating. Having him in a prone position for that length of time ... that is still a position that’s very difficult to breathe. Part of your training tells you, as soon as you get him cuffed, roll him over or sit him up, in order for them to be able to breathe.”

One trooper can be heard discussing the arrest in a telephone exchange inside his patrol vehicle.

“And I beat the ever-living fuck out of him, choked him and everything else trying to get him under control, and we finally got him in handcuffs when a third man got there, and the son of a bitch was still fighting, and we was still wrestling with him trying to hold him down because he was spitting blood everywhere — and then all of a sudden he just went limp,” the trooper said.

Not all of the troopers at the scene had their cameras on during the arrest, and Greene is not always visible in the available camera footage. The microphones are also not always on throughout the videos. And at one point, an officer deliberately turned his camera off. As a result, there are significant gaps in the details surrounding Greene’s death.

The video footage eventually shows Greene covered in blood and appearing unresponsive as he’s loaded into an ambulance. It’s not clear when Greene died, but it happened before arriving at the hospital.

As the AP reports, the troopers provided what appears to be some combination of incomplete and false information to medical professionals who handled Greene after the arrest:

Union Parish Coroner Renee Smith told AP last year his death was ruled accidental and attributed to cardiac arrest. Smith, who was not in office when that determination was made, said her office’s file on Greene attributed his death to a car crash and made no mention of a struggle with State Police.

The AP last year also obtained a medical report showing an emergency room doctor noted Greene arrived dead at the hospital, bruised and bloodied with two stun-gun prongs in his back. That led the doctor to question troopers’ initial account that Greene had “died on impact” after crashing into a tree. “Does not add up,” the doctor wrote.

Later, the police released a single-page crash report that said, “Greene was taken into custody after resisting arrest and a struggle with Troopers.” It did not mention any use of force by troopers.

Ramsey, the former police commissioner, said on CNN, “If the reports are accurate ... it’s a cover-up, the statements being made are not consistent with what the video is showing.”

Troopers have so far faced few repercussions for their actions toward Greene

There were at least six troopers at the scene of the arrest, and there are seven defendants in the Greene family’s wrongful death lawsuit. But Louisiana State Police have been reluctant to make critical details public, and the repercussions so far for those involved have been limited.

According to Louisiana State Police, the trooper who dragged Greene by his ankles, Kory York, was given a 50-hour suspension and returned to active duty, pending the outcome of state and federal investigations.

The officer who can be heard describing how he had beaten and choked Greene, Chris Hollingsworth, was notified last September that he was going to be fired as a result of an internal investigation into his handling of Greene’s arrest. Hollingsworth died in a car crash hours afterward.

And a third trooper, Dakota DeMoss, was arrested in February in an unrelated case on charges of using excessive force. According to the New York Times, DeMoss remains on leave pending the outcome of disciplinary proceedings but has been “notified of the agency’s intention to terminate him.”

The federal investigation of the incident and the Greene family lawsuit continues. And local protests throughout last year — which took place against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests following the high-profile police murder of George Floyd — attempted to maintain attention on what local activists and Greene’s family alleged was a cover-up of police brutality. Now, with the widespread release of video footage, national scrutiny has been sparked.

Body cameras can capture abuse, but they don’t ensure anything will be done about it

The handling of Greene’s death is a reminder that, as some progressive criminal justice reformers have pointed out, the mere existence of body cameras is no guarantor of justice for people who have been wronged by the police.

Body cameras for police officers have received bipartisan support at the state and federal level and are often seen as a commonsense reform measure to enhance accountability for law enforcement.

But the reality is that the documentation provided by body camera footage alone doesn’t necessarily improve behavior. As P.R. Lockhart wrote for Vox in 2019, “the research suggests that body cameras are only as successful as the departments they are implemented in.”

According to a study published in Criminology & Public Policy that year, in one of the largest reviews of academic research on body cameras to date, scholars at George Mason University found that, in many police departments, cameras have not had a consistent or significant effect on officer behavior or citizen opinion of the police.

And the existence of footage of police brutality or killings doesn’t alter the reality that law enforcement is structurally designed to protect police officers from prosecution for misconduct. For example, police killing investigations often move exceptionally slowly, which criminal justice reformers say gives officers more time to conspire and fabricate a story as they prepare to be asked about alleged misconduct. And the frequent absence of civilian investigators makes investigations likely to be stonewalled by the “blue wall of silence” that encourages officers to avoid incriminating colleagues.

Even when alleged misconduct is examined in courts, video footage is often incomplete and ambiguous enough to create doubt in juries. Moreover, the legal standard for use of force is so permissive that even compelling evidence won’t necessarily result in police convictions.

As President Joe Biden approaches proposing criminal justice reform legislation, advocates for more sweeping changes to policing are likely to emphasize the need to move beyond quick fixes like body cameras and look into dismantling institutional arrangements such as qualified immunity that are intended to shield police officers from being punished for the misconduct those cameras reveal.