Police accountability got hit by a train last week. Literally.

The dramatic footage of a train slamming into a police vehicle parked on a railroad crossing with a suspect in the back seat made national news. The impact crumpled the SUV as the locomotive dragged it hundreds of feet down the tracks.

As officers ran up to the police vehicle after it was finally hurled to the side, it looked like scrap put through a metal compacter in a junkyard. It seems inconceivable that anyone lived through it, though Yareni Rios-Gonzalez miraculously survived.

After frantically trying to exit the SUV as she watched the train barrel toward her, Rios-Gonzalez was knocked unconscious by the blow. She awoke in a hospital with broken ribs, a broken arm and leg, a fractured sternum and multiple head injuries.

Rios-Gonzalez was the victim of gross negligence, a careless disregard for her life from officers sworn to protect and serve communities. Based on the video released so far, I have no issue with the precautions police took stopping Rios-Gonzalez and putting her into custody. After reports that she used a gun in a road rage incident, they had every right to be apprehensive and careful.

But once Rios-Gonzalez was handcuffed behind her back, police had a duty to ensure her physical safety. No matter what crime a person is suspected of committing, indifference to their well-being once in custody is indifference to the societal trust placed in officers. 

The instance underscores a persistent attitude that plagues police forces across the country and in Colorado.

There is simply no reason someone controlled at a scene and put in custody should suffer grave physical harm, much less death. But it keeps happening.

At a national level, the most notable example was the indifference Derek Chauvin displayed as he murdered George Floyd over nearly nine minutes, crushing the air out of Floyd’s lungs and the life from his body. It set off protests across the country and tore communities apart.

But we don’t need to cross state borders to find other examples.

Before Rios-Gonzalez, Colorado had Karen Garner, a 73-year-old woman suffering from dementia who had her shoulder fractured by officers who proceeded to mock her for hours as she sat locked in a cell.

And before that, we bore witness to the killing of Elijah McClain. Years after his death, an amended autopsy report released last week concluded that he died because paramedics injected him with too much ketamine leading to cardiac arrest. The 5-foot-7, 140-pound McClain had already been subdued by multiple officers, who used a carotid hold to restrict the flow of blood to his brain, when the sedative was administered to him.

The amended autopsy report lists the cause of death as “undetermined” rather than either an “accident” or “homicide” (which simply means caused by the volitional act of another person, not necessarily murder or manslaughter). Given that the pathologist stated McClain would not have died but for the drugs administered to him by someone else, it seems the latter would have been the proper characterization.

Regardless, McClain died due to callous disregard for his safety.

As if to prove the point, three colleagues of the responding officers took mocking photographs in front of a memorial to McClain. That episode demonstrated that the indifference some subsets within police forces harbor is not a momentary lapse, but a sustained culture. That is something that must be addressed and rooted out.

I understand that police officers have a tough job, a dangerous job. Every time they put on their uniforms they potentially put themselves in harm’s way. But it does not justify putting suspects in custody at risk.

Let’s hope that the police in our communities who already act with upstanding care and concern can help get the whole train back on track.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq.

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