It was another gruesome video of policing in America — a naked Latino man, his face covered by a mesh spit guard, his hands cuffed behind him as he lay dying face down on the ground at his grandmother’s house. He pleaded for water more than a dozen times, saying he could not breathe as police officers restrained his legs and torso.
This time, the scene was a southern Arizona city with a politically moderate image, a large Latino population and a Police Department said to be relatively progressive.
The victim was Carlos Ingram Lopez, a 27-year-old cooking school graduate who prepared every meal from scratch for his 2-year-old daughter and watched YouTube videos to learn how to comb her hair. His death, as he was having a mental health crisis that led to a call for help, was a jarring reminder that Latinos as well as African-Americans have a troubled history with the police, even though Latinos’ struggles do not get the same attention.
“The idea that Tucson police are progressive is something I’ve only heard from white folks,” said Alba Jaramillo, 40, a Tucson lawyer who obtained United States citizenship after living in the city as an undocumented immigrant into her 20s.
Still unanswered is why it took the police two months to release the video taken by officers’ body cameras when Mr. Lopez’s family had almost immediately asked to see it. Regina Romero, Tucson’s first Latina mayor, said on Thursday that there had been a “breakdown” inside the Police Department and that she had not learned of Mr. Lopez’s death until last week, when the police chief called her. Even then, she said, the city’s lawyer warned her and the City Council not to say anything publicly because it could be seen as an effort to influence the internal investigation, which was still underway.
“My first instinct is, you need to put this information out there to the community,” said Ms. Romero, who heeded the lawyer’s advice. After she was shown the video this week, she urged the police to make it public as soon as it could be played for Mr. Lopez’s family on Wednesday.
An autopsy report by the Pima County medical examiner’s office found that Mr. Lopez died of sudden cardiac arrest, with physical restraint by officers and cocaine intoxication as contributing factors. In an unusual move, the medical examiner’s office ruled that the manner of death was undetermined, leaving open the question of whether Mr. Lopez died of natural causes or whether his death was a homicide.
In other cases around the country, similar deaths have been ruled homicides. Numerous people who have been handcuffed and put in a face-down prone position as officers restrain them have died in custody in recent years.
Last year, Vicente Villela, 37, told the officers holding him down at a jail in Albuquerque that he could not breathe. He lay on his stomach as the guards struggled to remove his shackles and pressed their knees onto his back and legs. Mr. Villela died, and the autopsy report found that he had died of “mechanical asphyxia,” with physical restraint and the effects of methamphetamine as contributing factors. His death was ruled a homicide.
Three officers involved in Mr. Lopez’s death resigned before the public release of the video, and Chris Magnus, Tucson’s police chief, offered to resign.
But Ms. Romero said on Thursday that Chief Magnus should remain in the job, emphasizing that authorities should not be distracted from examining why Mr. Lopez’s life was “needlessly lost.” Many Latino residents were already expressing dismay over the gap between the Tucson department’s professed goals and the reality of how Latinos in the city were often treated by the police.
At least by its own description before Mr. Lopez’s death, the Tucson Police Department figured among the most forward-thinking in the country. The department had banned chokeholds and shooting at moving vehicles, embracing a range of measures aimed at reducing police violence. Chief Magnus is known as a maverick for pushing progressive changes.
Still, Latino leaders in Tucson say that Mr. Lopez’s death, and the way the episode was kept secret for months, is just the newest reminder of how many people in their communities live in fear of the city’s police.
Ms. Jaramillo, the Tucson lawyer, said she had been having trouble sleeping since viewing the video in which Mr. Lopez died while calling out for his nana, or grandmother.
Ms. Jaramillo, who now assists victims of domestic violence, said she was struck especially by how Mr. Lopez’s grandmother, Magdalena Ingram, was treated dismissively by officers in her own home when she asked about her grandson while the officers were restraining him. She had called 911 because he was having a mental health crisis and acting erratically.
“Latinos in this city are talked to by the police dismissively, in a racist manner,” Ms. Jaramillo said, citing her own interactions with the Tucson police as both a lawyer and a resident. “On top of that, both in our black community and our Latino community, we are disproportionately targeted by the police.”
Questions are now swirling around the police leadership in Tucson, where Latinos account for more than 43 percent of the population. Chief Magnus said the public should have been notified sooner about Mr. Lopez’s death but contended that the “chaos that was going on” during the coronavirus pandemic had complicated matters.
That offers little solace to Mr. Lopez’s family, who knew him as a brother, a fiancé, a father and a son. Family members said he was a man who always reminded those around him how much he loved them. Mr. Lopez, who grew up in Tucson and graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, adored his grandmother in particular, family members said.
“Anytime you had any type of encounter, he gave you a huge, huge smile,” said Diana Chuffe, Mr. Lopez’s aunt.
Eduardo Coronado, the lawyer representing Mr. Lopez’s family, requested video of the episode on April 22, the day after Mr. Lopez died. Mr. Coronado said he had not received an explanation of why the video was released more than two months later.
Mayor Romero said that although the police’s internal affairs office started an investigation after Mr. Lopez’s death, the lieutenant in charge of that office had not immediately alerted Chief Magnus or his deputy to the video and what it showed.
The mayor and Chief Magnus have both said they will make sure that the police review video of all in-custody deaths and quickly inform the public, something Ms. Romero said they already do for police shootings. Ms. Romero said that in many cases, however, the videos themselves should not be released until an internal review is completed.
“There needs to be police accountability and transparency as much as we possibly can,” she said. “And there needs to be a fair internal investigation as well. It’s a balanced approach that we need to take.”
Mr. Coronado is hoping to receive information from the internal investigation of the death to decide the next legal steps forward on behalf of the family. One of the options, he said, could be filing a civil suit against the police force. In the meantime, Chief Magnus said he had asked the F.B.I. to examine the circumstances surrounding Mr. Lopez’s death.
Mr. Coronado had been a friend of Mr. Lopez’s family since Mr. Lopez was about 2 years old. When he watched the video, Mr. Coronado said, he was overcome with “heartbreak, horror, anguish, pain and bewilderment.”
Mr. Coronado said the family was questioning the necessity of the spit hood, the mesh covering that the police placed over Mr. Lopez’s head. The family is worried that the spit hood was impeding Mr. Lopez’s breathing, and they said that Mr. Lopez was gasping for air while he was being restrained face down on the concrete floor, according to Mr. Coronado.
“All of a sudden, 12 minutes later he’s passed away,” Mr. Coronado said.
Mr. Lopez’s family sees the fatal encounter as representative of a larger problem, Mr. Coronado said. According to Mr. Lopez’s family, the police’s objective when they arrived at the grandmother’s house should have been to assist Mr. Lopez, rather than to arrest him right away, Mr. Coronado said.
Roberto Villaseñor, who was Tucson’s police chief until he retired in 2015, said officers were trained not to leave people in that position. “You never try and leave someone on their stomach,” he said. “You turn them to the side and help them sit up so they can breathe. Why they didn’t do that here is going to be one of the major questions.”
Manny Fernandez contributed reporting.