Suit: Police excessive force caused Indianapolis woman’s death

The estate of an Indianapolis woman who died from a lack of oxygen in 2019 after officers restrained her facedown in a church is suing the city and its police department, alleging that officers caused her death by using excessive force.

The federal lawsuit contends that the city and its police department violated Eleanor Northington’s Fourth and 14th Amendment rights. It alleges officers used “excessive force, principally handcuffs” to restrain her and wrestled the obese woman to the floor on her stomach, “placing a knee in her back” as she was facedown in the Mt. Calvary Apostolic Church.

“Ms. Northington was unable to breathe and suffocated to death in the old shag carpeting,” according to the lawsuit, which seeks a jury trial.

The complaint was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis by an attorney for Northington’s daughter, D’Asia Montgomery, who administers her late mother’s estate, The Indianapolis Star reported.

After officers were called to the church, Northington and an unspecified number of officers engaged in a “struggle” in the church during which she attempted to hit, bite and spit on officers, according to an autopsy report from the Marion County coroner’s office the newspaper had previously obtained.

“I can’t breathe,” Northington reportedly said shortly before she died, the autopsy report states.

It is unclear from that report whether Northington died while an officer’s knee was pressed into her back while she was handcuffed behind her back, the Star reported.

After being rushed to a hospital, Northington was taken off life support two days later, the autopsy report states.

Her cause of death was listed as a brain injury caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain, but the report does not conclude that it was a homicide, and notes that Northington’s health problems, including obesity and an enlarged heart, may have contributed to the brain injury.

The lawsuit also names Mt. Calvary Apostolic Church as a defendant and contends that it shares blame in Northington’s death because a pastor with the church placed a cloth over her mouth to prevent her from spitting while police attempted to restrain her.

The city and police department declined to comment on the suit, while attorneys representing the church told The Indianapolis Star they were still reviewing the complaint.

Bryan Roach, who was the police chief at the time, told the newspaper in July 2019 that he believed his officers handled the crisis by the book, but he acknowledged that language in the autopsy report left open the possibility that the officers could have contributed to Northington’s death.

Five officers were placed on administrative leave after the incident, but an internal affairs investigation found no administrative violations, Roach said, and a criminal investigation did not identify any concerns. All five officers eventually returned to work.

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