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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Sam Levin in Los Angeles

Family furious after coroner says death of man Tased by LAPD is ‘undetermined’

Keenan Anderson died after being Tased by the LAPD on 3 January.
Keenan Anderson died after being Tased by the LAPD on 3 January. Photograph: Courtesy of Patrisse Cullors

The Los Angeles county coroner on Friday released the official autopsy of a man who died after being repeatedly Tased and restrained by Los Angeles police officers, declaring the manner of death to be “undetermined”, a conclusion that has sparked outrage from advocates and his family.

Keenan Anderson died on 3 January after LAPD officers held him down while responding to a traffic accident. Anderson was repeatedly Tased, and he yelled “they’re trying to kill me” before he became unconscious. He suffered a fatal heart attack at a hospital four hours later.

The coroner’s report suggesting officers’ actions were not the primary cause of Anderson’s death and the office’s decision to not classify the case as a homicide has been harshly criticized by Anderson’s family.

“I’m deeply disappointed in the continued scientific gaslighting of the LA county coroner,” Patrisse Cullors, Anderson’s cousin and a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, said on Monday. “The whole world witnessed Keenan be electrocuted by a Taser multiple times. No one can say Keenan would’ve died that day if he wasn’t Tasered. It’s just illogical. The Tasering killed him.”

The decision also comes amid growing awareness of the ways government autopsies and reports by coroner’s offices have in some cases been used to minimize or erase police actions in deadly encounters with civilians.

The autopsy, made public late on Friday, said Anderson’s death was due to heart disease and cocaine use, but also vaguely acknowledged the police’s significant use of force and Tasing, saying he died from the “effects of cardiomyopathy and cocaine use (death determined hours after restraint and conducted energy device use)”. Under “how injury occurred”, the report listed: “undetermined contribution of law enforcement restraint and [Taser] use”.

The autopsy, conducted by LA county’s department of the medical examiner and coroner, notes wounds from the Tasing, including 14 abrasions on Anderson’s back, as well as blunt traumatic injuries to his head, chest, arms and legs. Assessed by paramedics at the scene, he showed “moderate distress” with a rapid heart rate and “became unconscious with labored breathing”, the report says. At the hospital he appeared disoriented and in “acute distress” before his death.

Keenan Anderson teaching his high school students.
Keenan Anderson teaching his high school students. Photograph: Courtesy of Patrisse Cullors

The report says the cause of his “medical decline” was “likely multifactorial” and that because he lost consciousness minutes after he was restrained and Tased, “the physiologic effects and degree of contribution of the law enforcement interaction are uncertain”.

Body-camera footage from the encounter showed that the 31-year-old high school teacher and father, who had gotten into a collision, was first spotted by police in the middle of the road, saying, “Please help me.” Officers shouted commands at Anderson and had him sit on the sidewalk, the video shows, at which point he appeared frightened at the officers’ behavior, saying: “I want people to see me.” Anderson started to flee on foot, with an officer chasing him and forcing him to the ground; multiple officers then arrived and held him down, including one who placed his elbow and bodyweight on his neck.

Video captured Anderson repeatedly begging for help, at one point saying: “They’re trying to George Floyd me.” One officer appeared to Tase him for roughly 30 seconds straight before pausing and Tasing him again for five more seconds. He was eventually wheeled away in a chair, placed in an ambulance and taken to the hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.

The LAPD said at the time that officers used physical force and Tased him to “overcome his resistance”.

“My family and I are clear that Keenan died because on that day, he flagged down the police and the police chose to Taser him instead of giving him care,” Cullors said. “Part of what is painful is that the medical examiner, the coroner – these are institutions that we are supposed to trust, but we know there’s a long history of medical neglect and abuse against Black bodies, both in our lives while we’re living, but also in our deaths.

“When drugs are found in someone’s system, it’s used as an anchor to discredit the person killed by police and to establish doubt in the public eye on if this person even deserved their humanity, if they deserved to live, and that’s clearly what’s happening with my cousin,” Cullors added.

The autopsy of George Floyd, who was pinned to the ground for nine minutes, cited fentanyl use and heart disease as causes, but his death was ultimately ruled a homicide. Authorities in a California jail claimed a 23-year-old incarcerated man died of an overdose in 2018, until videos later revealed he was put in a full-body restraining jacket and died of asphyxiation.

Last year, researchers reported that the LA county coroner had frequently listed jail deaths as “natural” in cases in which there was evidence of physical harm. The coroner’s office disputed the methodologies and noted that deaths were considered “undetermined” when “the information pointing to one manner of death is no more compelling than one or more other competing manners of death”.

A coroner’s spokesperson said in an email that “undetermined” was the “final determination” and declined to comment further.

Anderson was one of three deaths at the hands of the LAPD in the first week of the year, sparking national outrage at the same time as protests erupted across the country in response to the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police.

The autopsy release was painful for the family, who gathered over the weekend to process the news, Cullors said. “The system to hold law enforcement accountable and receive justice doesn’t exist. So we have to take care of each other,” she said.

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