If the drug war is over, why did three Sacramento men fatally overdose after they were already in handcuffs?
Video offers a rare look at the complicated dynamic between cops and substance users desperately trying to avoid arrest
Brandon Smith died in the back of a paddy wagon in a setting reminiscent of Freddie Gray. The circumstances were not.
Back in June, state parole agents arrested Smith inside a detox center for undisclosed reasons. A city police officer sweeping the area for drunks and vagrants was summoned to taxi Smith to the county jail. A simple transport—that’s how it began. The police department’s deployment of body-worn cameras and a mandate to release the footage they record in critical incidents captured Smith’s final moments:
Once the wagon traversed the two miles to the jail’s sally port, the driver opened the back door to find Smith laying unconscious on his belly. The officer shouted for help, but it was too late. Medical examiners later recovered a plastic bag from Smith’s stomach and determined the 30-year-old died from methamphetamine intoxication.
Whether Smith’s complaints about feeling unwell before he tumbled to the wagon’s metal floor were ignored or just too commonplace to register hasn’t been answered. Whether he’s among the recent casualties of a drug war that claims lives even after the handcuffs click isn’t up for debate, say those on the ground.
“When you say that we’re ramping down the drug war, we’re actually not,” observed Melinda Ruger, director of Harm Reduction Services in Oak Park, a longtime resource center for substance users. “Something deep down is broken.”
At a time when even the Trump administration is supporting a bipartisan congressional effort to stop incarcerating drug addicts, the costs of the old paradigm continue to play out locally.
Before Smith, there was Edward Currie in February 2016. Sacramento police approached the 31-year-old Carmichael man in the parking lot of a Mexican grocery store on Northgate Boulevard, then arrested him for allegedly holding. Officers didn’t learn that Currie had partially swallowed a drug-knotted baggie until after he suffered a “medical emergency” inside the jail’s nurse station.
After Smith, there was George Knox, whose slow, agonizing demise was documented in real time by police cameras. The graphic footage is a testament to the terrorizing legacy of the failed drug war, and an illustration of the blind spots even compassionate officers have as cogs within its machinery.
Knox knew the drill. He’d already logged nearly 50 criminal cases in Sacramento County when officers rolled up on him behind a strip mall on Stockton Boulevard early the morning of July 31. Dressed in loose, faded jeans and a gray hooded sweatshirt, Knox slid up the tan wall and assumed the position, asking what he’d done.
The department’s official press release said uniformed officers contacted five “subjects” who were “loitering” near a dumpster with open beverages “appearing” to contain alcohol. The coded police-speak belies what can happen when officers are encouraged to use minor infractions as an opportunity to look for bigger crimes.
For proactive beat cops, it’s a no-lose scenario. Open containers and busted tail lights are the free pass to question probation statuses, run IDs, check for warrants, and rifle through pockets and glove compartments for the guns and contraband that consecrate righteous busts.
On the other side of this dividing line are guys like Knox, modern-day Jobs exhausted by the system’s relentless tests. He was 42, with a long rap sheet for minor and borderline-serious busts, many that turned into convictions, many that didn’t.
A body-mounted camera shows the main officer—let’s call him “Officer 1"—direct a gloved hand toward Knox, seated with his sneakers outstretched near some scattered bikes.
“Stand up. Turn around. Face the wall,” Officer 1 says evenly.
Knox rises and interlocks his fingers behind his head.
“What’d I do?” he asks.
The officer doesn’t answer. He guides Knox’s hands into handcuffs and clasps the first bracelet.
“Got any weapons on you?” O1 asks.
Knox says no. He repeats his question. His voice tips higher. He makes a show of his respect, dropping “sir” into a loop skittering into a worried falsetto. “What’d I do? Sir, what’d I do? What’d I do, sir?”
The second cuff locks. With both hands restrained behind Knox’s back, O1’s tone changes.
“C’mon man, you know,” O1 says. “You know you’re on parole.”
Knox, sounding frantic, protests.
“What you talkin’ about? I don’t have nothin.”
“OK, well I’m gonna figure out stuff before I let you go.”
Knox continues to plead his innocence during the crab-walk to the SUV.
“You doing me dirty,” Knox complains.
“How am I doing you dirty?” O1 asks, sounding a little wounded.
Knox doesn’t answer. They’re characters in an absurdist play, on opposite ends of a seesaw power dynamic. O1 turns out Knox’s pockets, setting a small glass pipe on the hood of his cruiser beside an orange prescription bottle, wallet, cigarettes and other random items.
“Where’s the drugs at?” O1 asks.
In time, the question answers itself.
Once Knox is secured in the back, O1 wakes his computer and makes small talk.
“You just got surgery? … For what? … You just got shot? … Where’d you get shot? … For what?”
O1 seems to be a nothing-personal kind of cop, keeping the mood light. Arrests don’t happen fast, like in the movies. There’s time to kill. The officer’s cellphone plays tinny on-hold music as he waits for some graveyard shift operator with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to confirm Knox’s parole status.
At the 25:35 mark of the body-cam footage, O1 is walking back to his cruiser when he notices something unusual.
“Hey man, you better not be spitting,” he says into the back window. “You good? Why you shakin’ so much? Huh? What’s wrong? Your blood pressure? Do you need a medic? No? What’s up dude?”
An in-car camera records Knox’s strangled response.
“I jus’ need some cold air,” he says, his voice thick.
O1 can’t make out what Knox is saying.
“You’re cold? Hey. Do I need to get a medic out here right now? … Because you’re tripping.”
“I’m not trippin',” Knox mumbles.
“You’re shaking uncontrollably.” O1 sounds genuinely concerned. “Do you need a medic?” he repeats.
The answer is no.
“OK,” O1 relents. He recites the Miranda warning to Knox, who affirms he understands his rights through clenched teeth.
“So what’s up with the pipe drugs?” O1 asks, trying for a confession.
“I don’t have no drugs,” Knox says, barely audible.
O1 asks about Knox’s no-bail warrant, but apparently doesn’t like what he’s seeing. He flags a colleague.
“Hey, I’m gonna get a medic out here. He’s shaking. He’s shaking uncontrollably.”
O1 punches the request into his computer and briefs his captive. It’s 28 minutes into the incident.
“Hey, Mr. [Knox], I got medics coming to check you out, OK?” O1 says gently. Then he lands on a scary thought. “Hey. Hey. Shit.” O1 rounds the car. “Did you swallow a bunch of drugs before we got here?”
Knox’s breathing sounds like a respirator underwater, garbled and gargled. He denies ingesting drugs to the cop trying to arrest him for having drugs. He slurs something like, “He’s inducing an unnecessary witness.”
The officer seems to suspect he’s watching a man die.
“Hang in there, OK?” he says, almost plaintively. “We got medics coming.”
At 32 minutes, O1 opens the back door of the SUV. The officer looking through the opposite side calls it: “He’s OD’ing.”
O1 sounds helpless.
“Yeah man, you’re freaking me out,” he tells Knox. “How much did you take?”
These cops don’t want to see Knox die over this. But they don’t know Knox’s life experience, what he’s done or not done, what he can’t endure. It’s a blind spot.
“Hey, if you’re concerned about me busting you for something you used, it doesn’t matter because you’re already going to jail anyways,” O1 offers.
Knox lists in the backseat. He keeps his mouth shut.
At the 35-minute mark, a fire engine rolls into the parking lot, followed by a boxy ambulance. But no one rushes to the patient. Firefighters and medics stroll the parking lot to the police SUV to Knox. They ask the same questions the cops asked, but in flatter tones. They get the same answers. Knox is splayed on a gurney and slow-wheeled away. It all happens at a leisurely pace.
As the caravan departs, O1 hangs back, collecting Knox’s belongings from the hood of his car and plunking them one at a time into manila envelopes. They make a hollow “thap,” the possessions of a life withering away.
Knox never made it to the jail. A plastic sandwich bag was pulled from his throat. An autopsy confirmed a methamphetamine overdose. The death is ruled accidental. Three adult children were notified.
More than a month later, the court records that Knox missed his scheduled arraignment. Two misdemeanor counts of drug possession are tabbed to a dead man.
The deaths of Currie, Smith and Knox share telling similarities. None of the African-American men were detained for a serious crime. Curry and Knox were both approached in parking lots and Smith was arrested on the floor of a detox center. He was taken from a place that gets drugs out of people’s systems to a place where most freshly booked inmates are under the influence of something, according to the National Office of Drug Control Policy. In all three cases, officers never saw the men swallow the drug bags that killed them.
Police Chief Daniel Hahn said his department is using its adoption of body-worn cameras to learn lessons from the field. His officers are equipped with Narcan nasal spray, which can reverse opioid overdoses. But Hahn didn’t suggest that officers stop arresting people for drug offenses.
“It’s not a matter of whether they should have been arrested or not, but is there something else we can do differently that would prevent some of these things?” Hahn said. “I think we always have to ask ourselves those questions.”
But Ruger, of Harm Reduction Services, said reexamining drug enforcement should also be on the table.
“We send them to jail to punish them, but what we are doing is creating people who are destined to fail,” she said.
“It’s racism. It’s classicism. It’s all these things that translate into this man swallowing this bag of dope,” Ruger continued. “We have to question what are we doing.”