Two years later, and three days after the death of Elijah McClain at the hands of the same police department, Aurora Police were once again in the spotlight for misuse of the hobble on a Black woman.
Shataeah Kelly was arrested by Aurora Police in August 2019 on charges resulting from a fight. An officer decided to hobble Kelly after she tried to escape from his patrol car.
Police video shows that the officer placed Kelly in the backseat with her hands cuffed behind her back. Her bound ankles were pulled behind her back and attached with a hobble to a belt around her waist.
She fell to the floor of the car. Kelly said she couldn’t breathe and asked to be moved but her pleas were ignored and she stayed, stuck on the floor, face down, for the 20-minute drive to the police station.
“I just didn’t know they could do that,” said Kelly. “I just feel like it was because I was Black and he was treating me like a slave.”
Then-Interim Chief of Police Vanessa Wilson, who is now chief, called the incident “egregious” and fired the officer.
“I was sick to my stomach. And then I turned to anger,” said Chief Wilson in an interview. “Because that’s not how we train and that’s not how we treat people. And it’s not how I expect my officers to behave.”
Kelly has retained counsel, the same lawyer who is representing Elijah McClain’s family in its ongoing suit against the city and city employees.
NBC News and The Marshall Project reviewed use-of-force data from the Aurora Police Department obtained via a state open records request and found the agency used the hobble on roughly 350 people over the past five years.
Police used the hobble on Black suspects slightly more frequently than on others. Thirty-nine percent of the suspects arrested by Aurora police in the past five years were Black, but Black people made up 43 percent of the people on whom Aurora police used force — and 46 percent of the people subjected to the hobble.
In 16 percent of the roughly 350 hobble incidents, the person was injured and required medical treatment.
As more scrutiny has been placed on Aurora’s use of the hobble in recent years, the directives in the department’s manual have changed and become more detailed.
In 2016, department policy advised police to avoid hogtying. In the most recent version, issued in late 2020 after the two incidents and one settlement, the policies clearly forbid hogtying. The department is replacing the hobble with a device that doesn’t allow legs to be bent backwards. “I think it’s also just sort of a more humane way of taking someone into custody if they are agitated,” said Wilson.
‘Please take me to jail’
As a Greensboro music festival wound down in the early hours of Sept. 8, 2018, Marcus Smith approached a group of eight white police officers on traffic duty and ran frantically from officer to officer, begging for help.
Smith can be heard and seen on police body camera footage saying, “Please take me to jail.” “Call the ambulance bro!” “Take me to the hospital!” “Help me!” “Please sir, I’m going to kill myself.” “Lock me up please.”
After several minutes, police put him in the back seat of a cruiser. No one got in the driver’s seat. Smith, not yet handcuffed, became more agitated and rolled on his back. A body camera captured one officer worrying aloud that Smith might break his window.
“We should definitely RIPP Hobble him,” the officer said. “Is anyone willing to help?”
Greensboro policy allowed officers to tie a person’s hands and feet together when they needed a higher level of restraint than handcuffs, but the policy did not define when this higher level of restraint was necessary or appropriate. Training materials warned officers that “Arrestee face down and ‘hogtied’ (knee bend greater than 90°) in transit” was a dangerous position that could lead to positional asphyxia.
Police pulled Smith from the car and put him face down in the street. Smith protested, yelling, “No, you can’t do that, I ain’t resisting.” At least four officers held him down, cuffed him behind his back, strapped the hobble around his ankles and attached it to the handcuffs. Body camera video showed it took officers two minutes and 40 seconds to hogtie him before they stood up as Smith lay face down and motionless.
“Are you still with us?” an officer asked Smith as soon as the hogtie was complete. He knelt down, put two fingers on Smith’s neck and couldn’t find a pulse. Smith was declared dead an hour later after failed attempts to revive him.
Over the next few hours, Police Chief Wayne Scott watched body camera video before issuing a press release about officers trying to help: “While officers were attempting to transport him for mental evaluation, the subject became combative and collapsed.”
Smith’s friends and family were suspicious. Marcus was homeless and struggled with substance abuse, but they knew him as unfailingly polite and upbeat. Nine days after his death, an outreach worker for the homeless wrote Scott and the city council and asked “how such a beautiful life could come to such an abrupt end.” The letter requested the public release of body camera video and all pertinent information, and said, “Chief Scott, we need answers.”
The chief replied via email two days later that there was nothing to worry about. He wrote that after reviewing videos, autopsy reports and other evidence, he concluded the officers “acted appropriately and with great compassion while trying to help a citizen in need.”
An internal investigation found no violation of policy and Scott returned all the officers to active duty.
After viewing the body camera video, however, the Smith family believed there was a cover-up that had begun with the chief’s first press release. Kimberly Smith called the release “a plain lie,” and insisted her unarmed brother posted no threat to eight armed officers. “Why didn’t they just handcuff him?”
On Nov. 30, 2018, the state medical examiner released the final autopsy results. The death was ruled a homicide, caused by “sudden cardiopulmonary arrest due to prone restraint.”
A few hours later, Scott issued a special order reversing department policy. Officers can no longer connect bound feet or ankles to handcuffs.
The Smith family filed a lawsuit in April 2019 alleging wrongful death and a cover-up. The mayor declined to comment for this story. Scott, who has since retired, did not respond to emails or a certified letter requesting comment. The Greensboro Police Department declined to answer any questions because of the ongoing lawsuit.
For two years, officials have fought the case vigorously and have denied wrongdoing or a cover-up in court filings and in depositions. They have argued that the restraint was appropriate in light of the safety risk Smith posed to himself or others.