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Stockton Settles $6 Million Lawsuit Over Man's Police Restraint Death

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The gravesite of Shayne Sutherland at the Park View Cemetery in Manteca, Calif., on Feb. 25, 2024.

The city of Stockton has agreed to settle a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Shayne Sutherland, a 29-year-old who died after being held face down by Stockton Police officers in 2020, for $6 million, the family’s attorneys announced Thursday.

Sutherland’s mother, Karen Sutherland, said nothing could replace her son, but the settlement feels like an acknowledgment of responsibility from Stockton Police that she has been hoping for.

“It shows that they’re taking responsibility for their police officers causing the wrongful death of my son,” she said.

The Stockton Police Department did not respond to requests for comment about the settlement and would not discuss the case for an earlier story reported by The California Newsroom and The California Reporting Project.

Sutherland died after an early morning run-in with Stockton Police Officers Ronald Zalunardo and John Afanasiev at an AMPM convenience store.

Sutherland had been acting strangely in the store, wandering in and out and asking to use the store phone and the clerk’s cellphone, according to police reports, surveillance footage and 911 recordings. He called 911 himself and said he needed a taxi.

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The store clerk also called 911 to report that Sutherland was threatening him with the wine bottle.

When the officers arrived, Sutherland followed them outside, sat against a wall as instructed and answered the officers’ questions. After a while, Sutherland stood up suddenly, and officers tackled him to the ground, holding him face down for about eight minutes, according to body camera footage.

The Sutherland family filed the federal civil rights suit against the city of Stockton, Officers Zalunardo and Afanasiev and former Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones in 2021, citing wrongful death, negligence and excessive use of force.

Sutherland left behind a son, 8, and daughter, 7. At the press conference announcing the settlement, his mother spoke of the hole his death left in their lives. His son wears a keychain with a photo of Sutherland, she said, and his daughter asks about why he died so young.

The settlement funds will go to Sutherland’s two children and his mother. The Stockton City Council has approved the settlement, but a judge still needs to sign off.

Experts have warned for decades that holding people face down for prolonged periods can compress a person’s torso and restrict their ability to breathe and pump blood.

A 1995 U.S. Department of Justice bulletin warned that face-down holds — known as prone restraint — can result in positional asphyxia or not being able to breathe due to the position of the body.

Karen Sutherland sits by her son Shayne’s gravesite at the Park View Cemetery in Manteca, Calif., on Feb. 24, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

New research published in 2022 also notes that prone restraint may cause cardiac arrest.

The DOJ bulletin advises officers to turn people onto their sides or sit them up as soon as they’re handcuffed to allow them to breathe more easily.

Zalunardo and Afanasiev handcuffed Sutherland within 30 seconds but didn’t turn him over until nearly eight minutes later. Afanasiev put his weight on Sutherland’s back for about half of that time.

Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who now teaches law at the University of South Carolina, said that deaths following prone restraint are easy to prevent as long as officers follow this procedure.

“I would say any, or at least damn near any defensive-tactics use-of-force trainer, any police expert, they’re going to tell you: Once someone has been handcuffed, you get them off their stomach, even if they’re still struggling,” he said.

California passed a law, AB 490, in 2021 that banned police from using maneuvers that put people at significant risk of positional asphyxia.

Assemblymember Mike Gipson, who authored the bill, is a former police officer. He said the bill was inspired by the deaths of numerous people, including George Floyd and Angelo Quinto, who died after being held face down by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Antioch, California, respectively.

Karen Sutherland holds a photo collage of her son Shayne at Park View Cemetery, where he is buried, in Manteca, Calif., on Feb. 24, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Gipson said the potential deadliness of prone restraint necessitates a total ban.

“We cannot afford these techniques to be used at all,” he said.

Gipson stressed the need for more comprehensive training to prevent these deaths and accountability for those who have died.

A February 2024 investigation by the California Newsroom and the California Reporting Project found that between 2016 and 2022, at least 22 people died in California after being held face down by police.

At least two of those people died after AB 490 went into effect.

Despite the Sutherland case and decades of warnings by experts about the dangers of prone restraint, the Stockton Police Department made an updated use-of-force policy effective on March 11, 2024, that states that positional and restraint asphyxia “remain the subject of debate among experts and medical professionals” and “are not universally recognized medical conditions.”

The department did not respond to requests for comment about the updated policy.

​​Families of people in California who have died following prone restraint have won at least $41 million in lawsuits across the state, according to court documents and press reports obtained by the California Newsroom and the California Reporting Project.

The Sutherland settlement is not included in that tally, as a judge hasn’t approved the agreement.

The San Joaquin County Medical Examiner attributed Sutherland’s death to a cardiac arrest and noted that meth intoxication also played a role. The death was ruled accidental.

However, the Sutherland family commissioned a second autopsy as part of the lawsuit. Former San Joaquin County Medical Examiner Dr. Bennet Omalu, who performed the procedure, ruled Sutherland’s death a homicide and said he died due to positional asphyxia.

Karen Sutherland said she hopes the hefty settlement will help deter other police departments from similar practices and encourage officers to follow their pledge to protect and serve.

“Because what happened that day on Oct. 8, 2020, with my son as he’s begging for his life and not a threat at all, they weren’t practicing what they should have been,” she said.

“I want this to never, ever happen again,” she said.

This story was co-reported by The California Reporting Project and The California Newsroom, a collaboration of public media outlets across the state. Special thanks to Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program, Stanford’s Big Local News, and the Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights.

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