Mr. Ingram-Lopez’s death in police custody more than two months ago was — to the discredit of the Tucson Police Department — only recently revealed, along with the disclosure that three officers had resigned under threat of being fired and that the police chief had offered to step down. The release of body-camera video capturing the young man’s agonizing death drew inevitable comparisons with George Floyd, whose death a month later under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer has sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice. Neither man appeared to be a threat to police. Both gasped — over a span of many long minutes — that they couldn’t breathe and pleaded for help. Mr. Ingram-Lopez called out for his grandmother; Mr. Floyd for his mother. Autopsies cited physical restraint as factors in both deaths.
But there are differences in the two cases that are relevant to any thoughtful debate about policing and the reforms that are needed. The officers in Mr. Ingram-Lopez’s case did not use a chokehold or put a knee on his neck. Instead of obvious malicious intent, there seemed to be sheer incompetence, complete confusion and utter disregard for dealing with a person who was clearly in a mental health crisis. Instead of following best practices — trying to engage him in conversation, putting him in a safe recovery position, summoning medical assistance — they kept him prone on the ground, threatened to shock him and covered him with blankets. The officers, the internal police investigation concluded, “showed complete disregard for the training provided to each, disregard for established policy, but most importantly an apparent indifference or inability to recognize an individual in medical distress and take the appropriate action to mitigate the distress.” The medical examiner attributed his death to sudden cardiac arrest with acute cocaine intoxication, physical restraint and an enlarged heart as contributing factors.
Mr. Ingram-Lopez’s case is no less tragic — no more acceptable — than Mr. Floyd’s or those of countless other people of color who have been ill-treated by a police culture that too often doesn’t recognize their humanity. The Pima County Attorney’s Office will ultimately decide whether the three officers face criminal charges, and Police Chief Chris Magnus, well-regarded for a record of progressive policing and whose offer to resign was rejected by Tucson’s city manager, has asked the FBI to conduct an independent review. It’s for all of us, though, to think whether our traditional approach to cases involving mental health is the best way to guarantee individual or community safety.