The Phoenix Police Department (PPD) is conducting an internal investigation after a man was killed when three officers pinned and arrested him on hot asphalt.
Ramon Lopez, who was 28 years old, died on August 4 after being subdued on a roadway for approximately six minutes. It was about 100 degrees that morning, and blacktop temperatures can climb 40 to 60 degrees above outside temperatures.
Current conversations around police reform in the U.S. primarily hinge on excessive and sometimes unconstitutional tactics used by law enforcement. But Lopez's story shows that overpolicing and overcriminalization are also salient parts of the discussion, particularly when considering his arrest was inspired by a 911 call about Lopez wearing ripped pants and loitering in a parking lot.
"He's kinda acting funny, he's over there sticking his tongue out, I don't know what's wrong with him," a woman told a Phoenix 911 dispatcher that day. "And then he got ripped pants on, and he jumping around…looking at people's cars."
"Alright, what is he doing exactly?" the dispatcher asks.
"He's out there looking at people's cars," the woman repeats. "Sticking his tongue out. Holding his, you know, his private parts."
"You say he's exposing his private parts?" the dispatcher interjects.
"No, he's holding it, like he's scratching on it or something," the woman replies. Video footage shows him briefly clutching the crotch area of his shorts.
A police vehicle arrived at the scene shortly thereafter. At the sight of the car, Lopez darted across the street and into a convenience store; an officer followed and met Lopez outside as he exited the shop. Lopez ran, throwing a drink over his shoulder that the PPD alleges he stole from the convenience store, though that didn't factor into his arrest as law enforcement wasn't yet aware of that allegation. He was tackled onto the hot roadway and subdued by three officers after a scuffle, during which one officer can be heard saying "left arm broken" in reference to Lopez. Officers handcuffed him and placed him in leg restraints after he was no longer moving. Lopez can be heard screaming and groaning in the body cam footage.
"You're fine," one officer says.
Additional backup then arrived. At one point, at least seven officers can be seen in the footage, not including the cop whose body cam was recording. After leaving Lopez on the asphalt for a few minutes, officers carried his body into a police vehicle, at which point they realized he was unresponsive. They then dragged his body back out and placed him on the ground. "Wake up buddy," an officer says as he shakes Lopez's body.
Fire personnel were called to the scene to provide medical treatment. He was pronounced dead later that day at a nearby hospital. Lopez's partner said he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia; his mother maintains that, while he had intense anxiety and was starting to seek help from medical professionals, she was not aware of any specific diagnosis.
"Conclusions about whether the actions of the officers are consistent with department policy and the law will not be made until all facts are known and an internal investigation is complete," Sergeant Mercedes Fortune said in a statement.
It's not the first time the PPD has come under scrutiny. The department has developed somewhat of a reputation: They are the subject of a recent lawsuit from a teen who suffered second-degree burns after a cop allegedly pinned her on hot asphalt in August of last year after law enforcement responded to complaints of a fight between high school students. Also last summer, a PPD officer assaulted a young father while a different officer threatened to shoot his fiancé because their daughter was suspected of stealing a Barbie from a dollar store. "Get your fucking hands up," one officer said. "I'm gonna put a fucking cap right in your fucking head!" An internal investigation resulted in that cop's firing.
And in May, a Phoenix officer shot a man in the back at least twice while responding to a noise complaint.
Law enforcement certainly has a rightful place in society. But our country's criminalization of small nuisances, and the corresponding gut impulse to call the police for those routine annoyances, can have deadly consequences.
UPDATE: Photos provided to The Arizona Republic show Ramon Lopez's back with purple and white streaks, which appear to be burns.