Black Lives Matter

Police Used Sickle Cell Trait As Smoke Screen for Black Deaths in Their Custody

Blaming the victim’s genes became a strategy to avoid scrutiny

Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash

Whenever a Black person dies in police custody, officers turn over their body to the medical examiner. Afterward, officials publicize their cause of death. Should we trust their analysis? Perhaps, but not blindly. Medical examiners work closely with police departments and have enormous power over how the public views deaths which occur in police custody.

According to groundbreaking reporting by the New York Times, medical examiners obscured victims’ causes of deaths by conflating the presence of the sickle cell trait with full-blown sickle cell anemia. Authorities stunned, pepper-sprayed, and in some cases deprived suspects of oxygen. Yet, reports declared these deaths accidental, often blaming natural causes.

When someone dies in police custody, medical examiners should search for the truth. Yet, in these cases, they helped to justify police officers’ actions by blaming the victim’s genetic makeup. And while many Black people have pre-existing conditions, correlation does not imply causation.

Just because someone has heart disease, as George Floyd did, does not mean that disease killed him. The whole world saw what happened, and yet, much of Chauvin’s defense depended on convincing the jury that Floyd’s Black body was to blame, not the cruel treatment by officers on the scene.

One in twelve African Americans is born with the sickle cell trait. This illness causes blood cells to take the shape of a sickle, constricting blood flow. Someone has to have two particular genes to develop full-blown sickle cell anemia. After the Times examined the record of 46 Black citizens who died in police custody, they disclosed that none developed full-blown sickle cell anemia. But, the medical examiners in these cases claimed sickle cell disease contributed to their deaths.

Photo Credit | Spark Sickle Cell Challenge

In roughly two-thirds of the cases, the person who died had been forcefully restrained by the authorities, pepper-sprayed or shocked with stun guns. Scattered across 22 states and Puerto Rico, in big cities and small towns, the determinations on sickle cell trait often created enough doubt for officers to avert criminal or civil penalties, according to The New York Times reporters Laforgia and Valentino-devries.

The New York Times’ reporting demonstrates that using sickle-cell anemia as a cause of death became part of a larger pattern, particularly when police used force on individuals who died in their custody. Authorities used Black genes as a smokescreen to literally get away with murder. Keep in mind that a medical examiner must first declare that death is a wrongful death or homicide before prosecutors file charges. As long as these deaths were ruled accidental or natural, police had a smokescreen and license to kill.

Tweet Credit | New York Times

According to a PBS Newshour poll, two-thirds of Black Americans distrust police and feel they are treated unequally. Given that officers disproportionately stop Black people, pull them over, hurt them, and arrest them, these fears are surely warranted. Police departments systematically terrorize Black communities, and some White people continue to ask Black people to trust this state-sanctioned violence by complying with every demand. Society often takes the word of an officer over the word of folks in the communities being served.

In Louisiana, citizens will receive the death penalty if they kill an officer. Yet, officers can kill Black citizens without consequence. Structurally speaking, American police are tyrants with significant control over other citizens. Their lives are valued more by American society, and that imbalance creates a dynamic where officers feel empowered to independently decide who lives and dies.

Photo Credit | New York Times via Twitter

When 25-year-old Dean Smith died in police custody, medical examiners portrayed his death as an accident, calling him another victim of the sickle cell crisis. As he gasped for air, officers told him, “Boy, you are being overly dramatic.” Then he died. This type of gaslighting is common. As officers held Floyd down, they blamed him for his inability to breathe.

As long as these deaths were ruled accidental or natural, police had a smokescreen, and license to kill.

Because Black people have a higher chance of developing sickle cell anemia, the ME’s cause of death did not raise concerns. However, there is just one problem with their assessment —Smith was born with the sickle cell trait, but he never developed sickle cell disease. So, this could not have been a contributing factor in his death that day.

A medical examiner should know that the presence of one sickle cell trait does not equate to sickle cell anemia. Yet, they misled the public by insisting Smith died because of an illness rather than the unrelenting abuse he suffered in custody. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a coverup.

In the case of 40-year-old Jason Pierce, the medical examiner claimed he died a natural death due to “widespread red blood cell sickling.” But, once again, Pierce did not have sickle cell anemia and thus could not have possibly died from an illness he never developed. Pierce had drugs in his system, but the medical examiner focused on his pre-existing genetic trait. After his death, officials accused guards of drug smuggling. These Louisiana guards had an incentive to cover up Pierce’s cause of death. Given their involvement, having drugs in an inmate’s system would not have been something they wanted to come to light.

Photo Credit | New York Times via Twitter

While legal scholars often declare that “no one is above the law,” that is idealistic, not realistic. In America, law enforcement, when working with complicit medical examiners, often skates past accountability for lawless behavior. Studies have shown that Black men and women die in police custody more than any other group of Americans. Yet, most White people trust authorities to tell the truth. This is the consequence of making officers seem infallible, and relying on their authority rather than objective performance. While harmful stereotypes about Black people provide police cover, positive stereotypes of police empower them to treat citizens how they see fit.

When officers told Dean Smith he was dramatic; they dismissed his pain. And when the medical examiner called his death an accident related to sickle-cell anemia, they obscured the facts in his case. Law enforcement used unethical tactics, and medical examiners failed to act as a check and balance in these cases. That begs the question — is American policing transformable? Or is it time to admit the system naturally leaves just enough room for abuses to go unnoticed?

Lord Acton once said, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So, instead of expecting the police to do better, communities should consider taking away their unequivocal power. Americans cannot fix a problem that they continue to sweep under the rug.

Transparency and accountability should be at the foundation of any system which claims to protect and serve that community. You may ask yourself, who should bring about this change? To that, I leave you with the words of the great Alice Walker: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Essayist, Poet, Activist, and Scholar, EIC of CULTURED, Co-Founder of #WEOC, with bylines at Momentum & ZORA ♥︎

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store