David Woodman, center, died in a police encounter in 2008.

Credit: Cathy Woodman

71 People Have Died In Encounters With Massachusetts Police Since 2004

December 16, 2014

The protesters carry signs that say, “Black lives matter,” while echoing Eric Garner’s words. He told the Staten Island police attempting to subdue him that he couldn’t breathe, but on the smartphone video, they don’t appear to immediately call for medical help.

"He died because they killed him," said Cathy Woodman. "He was walking down the street and deserved a citation. And he’s dead.”

Map: Police-Involved Deaths In Massachusetts From 2004 - 2014

But Woodman isn’t talking about African-American Eric Garner. Woodman is a resident of Southwick, near Springfield, and she’s talking about her white son, David Woodman.

"When I’m watching all the news, I want to shout out, "But it’s the same story, all the time," she said. "It’s happening everywhere, all the time."

In 2008, 22-year-old David Woodman was walking home with friends after watching a Celtics game at a bar when they passed a group of officers at the corner of Fenway and Brookline Avenue.

Woodman’s friends say he made a comment the officers didn’t like and they stopped him, threw him up against a fence, then slammed him on the ground. The officers left him on the ground, handcuffed, for several minutes, as he struggled to breathe, Woodman’s friends say.

The officers later said they thought Woodman was just drunk but when they checked, he wasn’t breathing. They later said they summoned medical attention for Woodman as soon as they saw he was in medical distress.

David Woodman died after 11 days in the hospital.

The media followed closely as investigations into Woodman’s death concluded without finding evidence of excessive force. Prosecutors didn’t press charges against the officers.

That’s because, like Eric Garner, David Woodman had a pre-existing medical condition. In Garner’s case, the autopsy showed he’d died as a result of choking.

The medical examiner’s autopsy on Woodman, though, said the heart condition he’d been born with had caused his death, not the actions of officers.

"The standard is you use the least amount of force possible to restrain and subdue the individual who is resisting your attempt to do subdue them," said Tom Nolan, director of graduate criminology at Merrimack College. "The reports I read in the Woodman case show the officers did so."

Nolan, who served 27 years on the Boston Police Department, says witnesses may have perceived officers used excessive force because normal police methods for subduing suspects can look rough to people who haven’t seen them before.

"The police officers, on the other hand, take individuals into custody on a fairly regular basis," he said.

Nolan reviewed investigators’ reports and says they show officers acted responsibly in Woodman’s case.

“The officers did everything reasonably possible to ensure that once they determined there was a medical situation, they attended to it immediately,” he said.

Nolan is convinced that didn’t happen in Eric Garner’s case. He says the officers should have been indicted because Staten Island police didn’t summon help as soon as they should have.

"Absent that video that we saw, that the world saw, I don’t think there would be evidence sufficient to indict the police in the death of Eric Garner or certainly to convict them of it,” he said.

But even with the video, the officers weren’t indicted. So Cathy Woodman says she doesn’t know if a video would’ve made a difference in her son’s case. She says police officers know they can do what they want without repercussions.

"This is becoming — it’s not becoming, it is — we’re just more aware of this being a police state," she said.

Woodman perhaps continues to feel that way because there’s no unbiased, comprehensive data on just how often these types of deaths occur.

To try to get a sense of how often people die in police encounters in Massachusetts, we searched old news stories and pieced together information from law enforcement agencies and district attorneys. The resulting number was 71. Seventy-one people have died in or after encounters with law enforcement in Massachusetts in the last decade, including David Woodman.

We were able to identify the race of the person who died in all but 10 cases — and the majority of the deceased were white.

That racial breakdown appears to be very different from other states. The New York Daily News did a similar analysis last week that found, in New York City, during the last 15 years, 179 people died in interactions with officers in that city alone. In cases where the Daily News could identify the race of the person who died, the overwhelming majority were black or Hispanic.

That’s why Woodman says she knows race wasn’t a factor in the death of her son, but she says she believes it is in cases like Garner’s.

“This becomes a race issue for families like this, but the bigger problem is that this is an abuse of power,” she said.

Boston police settled with the Woodmans for $3 million before the family even filed a civil suit. But that’s not enough for Woodman.

"We want criminal charges," she said. "We want the people held responsible. And that’s what’s not being done."

Woodman says families like hers, and Eric Garner’s, will continue to feel that way until some officers face consequences.

Watch Greater Boston's 2009 segment on David Woodman's death.


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