She died face-down on the floor of her own church, a cop’s knee digging into her back as her young son looked on. Her final words were, “I can’t breathe.”
Now, two years later, the daughter of Eleanor Northington, the 43-year-old Black mother of three, is suing the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and the city for the way her mother died that day, accusing the cops of violating her Fourth and 14th Amendment rights, and for using excessive force while detaining her.
“Defendants should have known that handcuffing a massively obese woman, face down in shag carpet would likely cause serious injury or death,” the lawsuit reads. “That excessive force caused Ms. Northington to suffocate to death.”
The lawsuit also accuses Mt. Calvary Apostolic Church of negligence.
On the night of February 6, 2019, police responded to reports of a woman suffering from a mental health crisis at the church, according to the lawsuit. The woman had reportedly been acting erratically and even assaulting and spitting at members of the church. When police arrived, multiple officers used force to restrain Northington. They handcuffed her, wrestled her to the ground, and placed a knee on her back in the process.
Police said at the time that Northington fought back and even attempted to spit on the officers as they tried to restrain her. At some point during the struggle, the pastor of the church placed a cloth over Northington’s mouth to prevent her from spitting on officers, the lawsuit says.
Once officers had placed Northington in cuffs, they placed her face-down on the church’s shag carpet flooring with the cloth still over her face. Shortly afterward, Northington complained of not being able to breathe. The lawsuit claims that officers ignored her verbal cues until they noticed she stopped breathing altogether just minutes later.
Police uncuffed her and immediately attempted to revive her using CPR, but their efforts were unsuccessful. She was rushed to the local hospital, but by then it was too late. Just two days later, Northington was taken off life support.
Northington’s daughter D’Asia Montgomery is in charge of her mother’s estate, and filed the lawsuit Monday with the help of attorney Larry Pleasants. The lawsuit accuses all three parties—the IMPD, the city of Indianapolis, and the church—of playing a role in her mother’s death and violating her rights as a U.S. citizen against unreasonable detention, and causing Northington’s surviving family “economic and emotional losses.”
“Mt. Calvary owes a duty to its congregants to keep its parishioners safe,” the lawsuit says of the church. “Mt. Calvary breached that duty when one of its pastors placed a cloth over Ms. Northington’s mouth, impeding her airways.”
Neither Pleasants nor Montgomery immediately returned a request for comment on the case.
The five officers involved in the encounter were placed on administrative leave after the incident but were reinstated after an internal investigation found they did nothing to violate administrative rules.
An autopsy report by the Marion County coroner's office found that Northington died from lack of oxygen to the brain, and doesn’t directly tie her death to the officer’s decision to put his neck on her back, according to IndyStar. The autopsy does note that pre-existing conditions, including obesity and an enlarged heart, were more likely to have played a role in her death than the officers’ use of force.
Shortly after Northington’s death, Montgomery told the local news outlet that she didn’t believe police actions were the cause of her mother’s death and confirmed that her mother had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Five months later, however, she would recant, telling the publication that she was actively seeking more information into her mother’s death, as the circumstances didn’t make sense.
When reached for comment, the IMPD declined to comment, citing pending litigation. Indianapolis attorney Benjamin Stevenson, who will represent Mt. Calvary Apostolic Church, also declined to comment on the case.