A Black Man Is on a Ventilator, and New Haven Police Are Investigated

It was evening on June 19 when Randy Cox’s family got a phone call: Mr. Cox had been arrested by police officers in New Haven, Conn., and was on his way to booking.

The family was anxious but was told to wait.

The next phone call, hours later, was perplexing and frightening: Mr. Cox, 36, had fallen, was at the hospital and needed emergency surgery on his spine.

The full picture of what happened in those intervening hours came into sharp focus this week, when Mr. Cox’s family and his attorneys presented police video showing Mr. Cox slamming headfirst into the back of a police van and going limp, shattering his spine and paralyzing him from the chest down. The van had come to a sudden halt, and there were no seatbelts to restrain Mr. Cox.

“You can’t even put it into words,” his older sister, LaToya Boomer, said Wednesday. “Mind-blowing.”

Mr. Cox, who is Black, remained hospitalized on Wednesday, on a ventilator, with hardly any movement below his neck, his family and his attorney said. After he was injured, the officers mocked Mr. Cox for being unable to sit up, a video shows.

It was the latest in a series of troubling encounters with the police in which Black people have been injured or killed — episodes that have fueled distrust of law enforcement and prompted widespread protests against bias and brutality in policing. It bears a striking resemblance to the case of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Baltimore man who died in 2015 after being forced to ride unrestrained in the back of a similar police transport.

“It induces me to tears,” said Jack O’Donnell, Mr. Cox’s attorney of several years. The graphic video of his client’s injury, Mr. O’Donnell said, was difficult for him to watch.

In an interview Wednesday, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said that what happened to Mr. Cox was “terrible,” and vowed that the city would handle the investigation transparently and quickly. Hours after the incident occurred, he said, the city had notified state authorities and the state police, who began their own investigation.

“It’s very important to us to respond to this quickly, decisively and openly,” Mayor Elicker said.

All the police officers involved in the incident — one lieutenant and four officers — have been placed on paid leave while the department conducts its investigation, Mr. Elicker said.

Mr. Cox had spent most of June 19 at a neighborhood block party when police responded to the area following a weapons complaint, said Mr. O’Donnell and the police. Officers confronted Mr. Cox, found a weapon, they later said, and arrested him.

Mr. Cox was first placed in the back of a squad car that had seatbelts, Mr. O’Donnell said. But officers soon called for a larger van. The van, commonly used to transport suspects, did not have seatbelts in the bay of the vehicle, he said.

In police footage, which had been published by news outlets, Mr. Cox can be seen sitting unrestrained in the back of the van. He kicks against the front of the transport area several times. Then he slams violently headfirst into the back end: The van had stopped suddenly. Mr. Cox’s limp body lies motionless as he whimpers for help.

“I’m stopping, I’m going to check you out,” the driver, identified as Officer Diaz in the video, can be heard yelling.

Officer Diaz stops the vehicle to check on Mr. Cox, who says that he can’t move. The officer then radios for medical assistance and continues to the detention facility. After the van arrives, officers can be seen ridiculing and chiding Mr. Cox for his posture and his failure to sit up.

“If you’ve got to drag me, do what you’ve got to do,” Mr. Cox tells officers, who then drag him by his feet out of the van.

At one point, one officer suggests that he may be drunk. Mr. Cox pleads that he can’t feel anything and is unable to move. Finally, officers drag him out and drape him over a wheelchair. Later, they drag him by his handcuffed, limp arms into a holding cell.

Mr. Cox underwent undergo surgery to fuse several broken vertebrae, his sister said.

New Haven City policy does not require officers to restrain those who have been arrested in the back of police transport vans, but it does require officers to immediately call an ambulance or medical personnel to the scene if a passenger becomes physically ill or injured.

In an email to city residents last week, Mayor Elicker said the van’s abrupt stop appeared to have occurred when the police officer who was driving braked to avoid an accident.

“This isn’t a proud moment for me or the Police Department. We’re all disheartened by what happened,” Assistant Chief Karl Jacobson, who is expected to take over as the next chief of the New Haven Police Department, said at a community meeting this week. “I want justice for Randy as well. We are going to work hard to make changes.”

While the officers did not appear to have injured Mr. Cox maliciously, Mayor Elicker said, their behavior “showed a level of callousness that is deeply concerning.”

Mr. Cox remains in the hospital, largely unable to move. Mr. O’Donnell said doctors are “hopeful, but not optimistic” that he will fully recover.

“He was able to talk at first when he first got to the hospital, but his oxygen and breathing wasn’t good,” said his sister, Ms. Boomer. He can respond to “yes” or “no” questions, she said, and has been able to show slight signs of movement in his left arm.

Mr. Cox has been charged with weapons possession in relation to the incident and has a court date scheduled for July 21, Mr. O’Donnell said.

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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