Cleveland's Rodney Brown Included in NYT History of "I Can't Breathe" Deaths


  • Family photo/WEWS

"I can't breathe."

"So, who gives a fuck?"

The first quote was what Rodney Brown told Cleveland police officers after being tased at least twice following a traffic stop in 2010.

The second was a response from a Cleveland police officer.

It bears repeating: "So, who gives a fuck?"

Within an hour, Brown was dead in police custody.

In the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands and knee of police officers, the New York Times dug through archival stories and court records tracing the recent, sad history of "I can't breathe," which is what Floyd and at least 69 others have said before dying, though records are incomplete.

Brown's name doesn't ring the same bells in Cleveland as those of Tamir Rice, Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams or Tanisha Anderson, but it should.

"Mr. Floyd’s dying words have prompted a national outcry over law enforcement’s deadly toll on African-American people, and they have united much of the country in a sense of outrage that a police officer would not heed a man’s appeal for something as basic as air," the Times wrote today.

"But while the cases of Mr. Garner and Mr. Floyd shocked the nation, dozens of other incidents with a remarkable common denominator have gone widely unacknowledged. Over the past decade, The New York Times found, at least 70 people have died in law enforcement custody after saying the same words — “I can’t breathe.” The dead ranged in age from 19 to 65. The majority of them had been stopped or held over nonviolent infractions, 911 calls about suspicious behavior, or concerns about their mental health. More than half were black."

In Brown's case, the NYT said:

When 40-year-old Rodney Brown told police officers in Cleveland he could not breathe after being Tased multiple times during a struggle in 2010, one of them responded: “So? Who gives a [expletive]?”

One of the police officers radioed for paramedics but later said he did so only because it was a required procedure when someone had been Tased; he did not convey that Mr. Brown had claimed he could not breathe.

A lawyer for the city in that case told a panel of judges that the officers did not have the medical expertise to know when someone was in a medical crisis or simply exhausted from a vigorous fight, according to an audio recording.

Rodney Brown's family received a $375,000 settlement from the city of Cleveland in 2016.

That was five years after they initially filed a wrongful death lawsuit, and that settlement was only agreed to because, the family said at the time, the legal process had simply played out too long to go on fighting anymore.

From our original coverage in 2016:

The 2010 death of Rodney Brown sparked little outrage compared to the 2014 death of Eric Garner in New York City. The Plain Dealer ran a great front page in December, revealing a moment that foreshadowed much of 2014's debate over police use of excessive force. Amid a violent altercation and after Brown had been arrested, he told an officer that he could not breathe. The officer replied: "So? Who gives a fuck?" Brown died shortly thereafter. Garner's story was similar — particularly the "I can't breathe" quote — though the national climate is much more electrified these days.

In short: On Dec. 31, 2010, Brown was pulled over for a traffic stop. Police assert that his headlights were off; Brown's family claims otherwise. Suspecting alcohol consumption, officers ordered Brown out of the car. As they patted him down, the lawsuit contends, [Officer] Chapman elbowed Brown in the back of his head, prompting Brown to run across the street and face the officers. Chapman tased Brown, though he said that had little effect on the man. The officers pretty much deny all of that, writing that Brown resisted the pat-down and refused to comply with orders before being tased.

Brown ran, and the officers chased him down East 114th Street. When they caught up to him, tasings continued to no effect. A scuffle ensued, ending with Chapman sticking his gun into Brown's back before another officer subdued Brown. In all, eight officers ended up at the scene to control Brown. A crowd began gathering. Brown was arrested, and when he was stood up by Chapman he told the officer that he couldn't breathe.

Brown died about an hour-and-a-half after first being pulled over.
As the Times notes in its coverage today: "Many of the cases suggest a widespread belief that persists in departments across the country that a person being detained who says 'I can’t breathe' is lying or exaggerating, even if multiple officers are using pressure to restrain the person. Police officers, who for generations have been taught that a person who can talk can also breathe, regularly cited that bit of conventional wisdom to dismiss complaints of arrestees who were dying in front of them, records and interviews show."

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