GREENSBORO — Members of the City Council said this week that they would like more answers to questions surrounding the death of Marcus Deon Smith, but they have not yet agreed on a course of action.
Smith, 38, died Sept. 8 after he was hogtied by Greensboro police officers who were trying to restrain him after he became extremely upset.
At the council’s monthly public hearing meeting Tuesday, speakers demanded action from the council that includes apologizing to and compensating the family of Smith, firing Police Chief Wayne Scott and holding accountable the police officers involved in what happened to Smith that day.
Some council members told the audience after the hearing that their questions are the beginning of a process that will find answers to Smith’s death and ways to keep such tragedies from happening again.
“There are lots and lots of questions,” Councilwoman Tammi Thurm said. “We need to get lots of answers and we need to take this seriously.”
Smith’s death was ruled a homicide last week by the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan said before the public hearing that the city would like to hire new mental health professionals who will work for the police department to train officers in dealing with people who have mental health and substance abuse issues, as Smith appeared to have.
Councilwoman Sharon Hightower said after the hearing that she would like to see an independent investigation of Smith’s death beyond the State Bureau of Investigation report that is expected to be wrapped up later this week.
Smith died of cardiopulmonary arrest caused by a variety of factors, including “prone restraint” at the hands of police as well as a combination of drugs, alcohol and cardiovascular disease, the state medical examiner said in an autopsy report released Friday.
The report also ruled Smith’s death a homicide.
City officials got a judge’s permission last week to release video from police body-worn cameras from that day. The footage shows a disoriented and agitated Smith running and walking back and forth on Church Street near East Market Street.
Smith often asks for help and says at least once, “I’m gonna kill myself,” and he also suggests he is in danger. Police ask him to stop so they can help him and eventually put him in the back of a police car without restraints.
The video shows Smith becoming so agitated that police open the door and he rushes out. Within minutes officers put him on the ground and, with a bit of struggle, they cuff his hands behind his back and begin to bind his feet to his hands in what is called the RIPP Hobble restraint.
Smith yells and struggles and appears to gasp for breath during the process. After he becomes still, officers check for a pulse, then begin to untie him so emergency workers can treat him.
Police said in a news release in September that officers responded to the scene at 12:42 a.m. Paramedics arrived about five minutes later.
Police said Smith died about an hour after he was taken to a hospital for further treatment.
City officials have said that officers followed proper procedures in the events before Smith’s death.
Several of Smith’s family members and the family’s attorney said Monday at a community meeting that they believe the police killed Smith when they hogtied his hands to his feet behind his back while putting him on his stomach.
Hightower told the audience at Tuesday’s council meeting that the use of what appeared to be a rope in the hogtying of Smith suggests the darkest days of the lynchings of black people.
“It carries with it a horrible stigma of oppression and slavery. Anything that has a rope attached to it should be totally done away with,” Hightower said.
She said that if the city hires and places mental health professionals in the police department, those people should be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“We need to make sure they are housed where they need to be so they can respond appropriately,” Hightower said.
Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter drew angry outbursts from the audience when she said the drugs Smith was using can cause “a form of superhuman strength” in a person and, according to the medical sources she has consulted, authorities need to take the time to let the drugs wear off.
Abuzuaiter said that after watching the bodycam video at length, she believes police were trying to let Smith run free while the drugs ran their course.
“I really can’t judge in this that the officers did wrong, from what I saw on the video,” she said.
Councilwoman Michelle Kennedy, who is the executive director of the Interactive Resource Center, an agency that helps homeless people, said she knew Smith.
“I think it is really important that I own that I failed to respond when people reached out for answers,” Kennedy said.
She clarified on Wednesday, “I was referring to not responding to a letter from community members. I’ve been asking for answers since the moment I got the phone call” shortly after Smith died.
She said during the meeting that she is one of the council members who suggested the Greensboro Police Department hire mental health professionals after she watched the video with the mayor and that the city will have to work out the financing for such a program.
“We can’t go back and undo how we got to that place,” she said. “All we can do at this point is make sure it never happens again.”
Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann said she, too, has been concerned about the mental health issues that the police department faces in such situations as the one with Smith. She said she began researching ways of handling such situations more than two years ago.
“We’ve got to have some trust in each other,” Hoffmann told the audience. “We represent you and it’s important for us to be diligent and supportive of you. But we also are required to use judgment.
“If we don’t use that good judgment then we really are betraying you as your representative,” she said.
Councilman Justin Outling had several questions about the proposal to add mental health professionals to the police department and how the city would pay for it.
Vaughan said the financing has not been worked out yet, but the idea came as she and other council members watched the police video.
“What’s one thing we could have done?” they asked, she said.