A judge authorized the release of body camera footage this week showing officers in a North Carolina jail restraining a 56-year-old Black man as he repeatedly says, "I can't breathe," before losing consciousness and later dying.
In the footage, John Neville can be heard repeatedly telling officers in Forsyth County Detention Center in Winston-Salem that he was unable to breathe. He died two days later in the hospital in December 2019.
The release of the footage, months after the incident took place, came as a result of legal petitions from various news organizations. (The video below is graphic.)
Two separate clips have been released, and they show a special response team attending to Neville, who had been found on the floor by his cellmate and was experiencing a medical episode with vomit on his clothing and blood around his mouth. He had apparently fallen to the floor from the top bunk of the bed.
“It looks like you had a seizure,” the attending nurse says.
Visibly disoriented, Neville doesn't respond when asked to confirm his last name, and after a period of silence struggles as officers continue to restrain him.
They place a spit hood over his head, and Neville is wheeled in a chair to an observation room while handcuffed. He is then transferred to another cell where he is placed on a mat and held in a prone position — facedown — with his arms in handcuffs.
“Please, please, I can’t breathe, help me, help me, please,” pleads Neville, who becomes distressed and tells officers that he is unable to breathe more than 20 times. Instead, he is further restrained by officers who pull his legs behind him.
“You’re breathing ’cause you’re talking, you’re yelling, and you’re moving. You need to stop. You need to relax, quit resisting us,” responds an officer who attempts to remove Neville’s handcuffs, but struggles because the key had broken off in the lock.
They resort to using a bolt cutter to remove the handcuffs, and on the advice of someone not visible on camera, the officers release Neville’s legs “so he can breathe.”
With Neville in a prone position, officers can be heard exchanging jokes about the damage to the handcuffs.
“Whose cuffs were those? ... It’s coming out of your paycheck,” says one officer.
An extended period of silence from Neville prompts an officer to check in on him but he remains unresponsive.
“John, you all right, buddy? I promise we’re going to be done in a few minutes all right?” the officer says. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
When the cuffs are removed, the officers and nurse seem unable to get a clear response from Neville and they all exit the cell, leaving him unattended for a moment, only to reenter shortly after to clarify whether he was breathing.
The footage ends with the attending nurse performing chest compressions for CPR.
Neville, a father from Greensboro, North Carolina, was arrested on Dec. 1 last year and held on an assault charge. The incident at the prison took place the following day and he died at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center two days later.
According to the autopsy, he died of a brain injury due to "positional and compressional asphyxia during prone restraint.”
In a press conference on Aug. 4, ahead of the footage being released, Sheriff Bobby F. Kimbrough issued an apology to Neville’s family and suggested renaming a housing unit at the Forsyth County Detention Center in his honor.
"I apologize again for what happened on that day," said Kimbrough, “We're sorry for the mistakes made that day. I take responsibility for that as the sheriff."
Kimbrough told reporters that the “tragic” footage had brought him to tears.
The details of Neville’s death were made public following an investigation by the News & Observer and underpin the most recent wave of nationwide protests set in motion by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer placed him in a knee chokehold for more than eight minutes.
Along with calling for major police reform, the protests have ignited a reckoning over racial injustice across the country and in many industries.