County trained to use prone restraints without training on dangers, Lofton lawsuit says

Sedgwick County taught its juvenile corrections workers to use prone restraints on unruly teens but failed to teach them that doing so for too long has been known to kill, a recent court filing in the death of 17-year-old Cedric Lofton says.

After Lofton was arrested during a mental health crisis in September 2021, five Sedgwick County juvenile corrections employees pinned him facedown in a cell for about 40 minutes until his heart stopped beating. He never regained consciousness.

His death was ruled a homicide, but prosecutors declined to file criminal charges, citing a state law that grants immunity to people who say they acted in self-defense.

All five employees who took turns restraining the Black foster child recently testified under oath that the county trained them to use prone restraints without training that prolonged prone restraints could be dangerous, according to filings in a lawsuit brought by Lofton’s brother, Marquan Teetz.

Their depositions seem to contradict statements made by Sedgwick County in a 2022 response to an open records request and by Safe Clinch, the company that developed the county’s use-of force training curriculum. Both previously said the training materials addressed the dangers of positional asphyxia, one of the risks associated with prone restraint.

Lawyers representing Lofton’s brother contend that no such training on prone restraint risk factors occurred.

Now, county officials have declined to say whether corrections staff were trained on the dangers before Lofton’s death, saying it “dives into specifics that relate directly to active litigation.” The county also denied The Eagle’s request for a copy of the training manual and for records showing what training the employees received before Lofton’s death.

The disconnect between what the county says is in the training manual and what employees say they were taught surfaced in February and March court filings by Teetz, who is suing Sedgwick County, the city of Wichita, and the police officers and juvenile detention officers who interacted with Lofton on Sept. 24, 2021.

Lawyers are using the corrections workers’ testimony to argue the county is liable for violating Lofton’s civil rights under a federal law that allows the court to impose punitive damages. The deposition transcripts are referenced but not included in the court record.

The county employees have been identified in court records as Jason Stepien, Brenton Newby, Karen Conklin, William Buckner and Benito Mendoza.

U.S. Judge Eric Melgren has already ruled that the county can’t be held liable for the actions of the employees, saying their alleged conduct was “so outside the bounds of appropriate law enforcement behavior that it cannot be said to involve a ‘gray area’ in the law” requiring additional training.

“Simply put, even an untrained officer should know that such conduct exceeds the permissible bounds of the use of force,” Melgren wrote in December, when he dismissed failure to train counts against the county and the city of Wichita, in part because Teetz’s lawyers were unable to establish a pattern of similar civil rights violations at the county’s juvenile detention center.

“Because even an untrained officer should know that the conduct alleged to have occurred in this case was improper, the Court cannot say that the consequences of any alleged lack of training here were highly predictable and patently obvious,” Melgren wrote.

Teetz’s lawyers contend the new depositions provide evidence that the county’s policies and training — not simply a failure to train, as was previously argued — caused Lofton’s death. They’re asking Melgren to reconsider his ruling.

“[The employees] testified that they had no knowledge whatsoever of any dangers associated with prone restraint positioning and that Sedgwick County had never trained them on any such dangers,” Ben Stelter-Embry, a lawyer from Kansas City, Missouri, wrote in a March 24 filing. “Furthermore, Sedgwick County trained employees that they could take a juvenile to the ground and restrain him there in the prone position until he calmed down (i.e., for as long as the employee deemed necessary) and, therefore, the County had a policy encouraging prolonged prone restraints.”

In Lofton’s case, the corrections employees held him down until he went into cardiac arrest and began making “snoring sounds,” commonly associated with agonal breathing, a sign that the brain is not getting the oxygen it needs to survive after the heart has stopped beating.

Former county Corrections Director Glenda Martens defended her employees’ conduct in the aftermath of Lofton’s death, saying they “acted well within the policy and the requirements of that policy” throughout the fatal incident at the Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center.

The risks of prone restraints have been known for decades in the corrections community. A 1995 Department of Justice bulletin describes a “vicious cycle” where applying weight to a person’s back deprives them of oxygen, causing them to struggle more violently and resulting in the application of more weight to subdue them.

At least six states have banned the use of prone restraints in juvenile detention facilities and schools. Kansas banned the practice in schools in 2017, but it remains legal in the state’s juvenile detention facilities.

Putting training into action

Lofton was having an apparent mental health crisis when Wichita police decided to leave him at the juvenile intake center instead of taking him for a medical evaluation. An officer changed answers on a release form that would have required police to transport him to a hospital instead.

Footage from within JIAC shows Lofton did not appear to become physically aggressive until after Stepien and Newby initiated physical contact, grabbing him by the arm and attempting to escort him back into the cell he had just been let out of.

Lofton had already been placed in leg shackles when corrections workers moved him from a seated position onto his stomach and began attempting to apply handcuffs. They told investigators Lofton never expressed that he was struggling to breathe before he lost consciousness — the surveillance footage has no audio — and said they continued to restrain the teen because they could not get him into handcuffs.

“Each (employee) was interviewed and asked why. Why didn’t you let him up?” District Attorney Marc Bennett said in January 2022. “The answer was, ‘We couldn’t per policy when he was shackled. At this point, we cannot leave him shackled alone. We have to be there. We have to restrain him.’”

At the direction of the task force charged with identifying systemic failures that contributed to Lofton’s death, the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections recently updated the juvenile facility’s use of force policy to “only allow the prone position to be used to cuff and sit or cuff and stand” youth.

“This is consistent with the Safe Clinch training course which allows the prone position for immediate containment purposes to then transition, as outlined in the policy,” county Corrections Director Steve Stonehouse said in December, citing the curriculum used to train county employees on verbal de-escalation techniques and what the company calls “therapeutic holds” for physically restraining juveniles.

Records obtained by The Eagle show Sedgwick County has paid Safe Clinch $5,000 since 2015 for four training sessions attended by the county’s training instructors.

“We recommend that all staff authorized to use immobilization techniques be trained on the risks of positional asphyxiation and the relationship with prone restraint methods,” the Safe Clinch website states on a page promoting its verbal de-escalation instructor plan. “Anytime you physically restrict a person’s movement there is a risk of injury.”

Safe Clinch declined an interview request, referring a reporter to their website, which had been updated to add that “From the beginning SafeClinch has provided training and material on Positional Asphyxiation. This includes the following: 1.) Preventing Positional Asphyxiation 2.) Positional Asphyxiation Defined & 3.) Prone Containment Considerations.”

“Even when using prone containment methods in the SafeClinch Program you should have a staff member (preferably medical staff) present to watch for signs of distress,” the website now states.

The juvenile facility’s use of force policy calls for officers to review restraint and use of force techniques quarterly “in order to remain proficient and safe in use of the techniques.” Per policy, these reviews are to be documented in employees’ quarterly reports.

The Eagle submitted an open records request seeking all quarterly reports for JIAC workers for the entirety of 2020 and 2021 but was told by the county that no such records existed.

Quarterly training reports for 2022, which the county provided voluntarily, list the staff members who participated in use of force/ restraints training and notes specific topics covered in the training sessions, including “When use of force is needed or not needed,” “Using verbal commands first (redirecting)“ and “Prone position as a transition only with no pressure being applied to upper body.”

The county provided no explanation for why similar training records do not exist for the prior two years.

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