When Someone You Love Dies in Police Custody and They Blame 'Excited Delirium'

Many cops are taught that some people lose it, gain superhuman strength, and die. But is the condition real?

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May 5 2016, 8:22pm

Anthony Firkins and his wife Julie before his death. Photo courtesy of Julie Cobio Firkins

This piece was published in partnership with the Influence.

Julie Cobio Firkins prayed and then walked into a room to watch her 33-year-old husband die. "The video that you're going to see is very sad," she remembers the officer warning her—twice—before playing footage from a police bodycam. But as the tape rolled, she had a different thought: It was brutal, not sad.

Why were all those officers tasing her husband, over and over, while he lay under a trailer truck? And why, once they had him in handcuffs, didn't they help him more when he cried out that he couldn't breathe?

"If you're talking, you're breathing, dude," an officer said.

Death associated with restraint asphyxia in police custody has been endlessly debated, with some experts (those favored by police departments) contending that it's unlikely that people die that way. Some researchers have concluded that you probably can't die like that; others that you can.

As Rick Bowen points out, no cop ever went to work hoping for a mysterious in-custody death on their watch. And police just don't get the right training to deal with mentally ill or otherwise distressed people—an oversight that far too often ends in fatal shootings. But many police practices and habits escalate situations that can and should be de-escalated.

Julie Firkins couldn't understand why a dead dog got more attention than her dead husband.

Anthony Firkins's family wonders what might have been had officers handled things differently. He was tasered six times (according to the Idaho Statesman's count).

It should be noted that once he was in cuffs, officers calmed down and tried to get him to relax; footage doesn't suggest multiple officers putting weight on his back for an extended period, like in the Brian Torgerson case (although the police cams don't pick up everything and it's pretty dark). The two officers, Joshua Krohn and Eric Duke, who spent the most time with Firkins after he'd been restrained, tried to calm him down. "Just relax man. Take deep breaths, you're alright," Krohn told him.

But other than short spells on his left side and then his right side—while officers searched his pockets a minute or so later—Firkins was handcuffed and down on his stomach, in the prone position that many training manuals advise against.

He was on his stomach when he repeatedly yelled that he couldn't breathe. The idea that people who are having trouble breathing can't talk appears to be a misconception—air can come out of you, even there isn't enough coming in.

Firkins was prone when Officer Duke put him in a figure four-figure leg lock, crossing his legs behind his back and pressing them against his back. He'd kicked back his legs once, but after that, he stopped physically struggling or making much noise.

He was still on his stomach when Officer Becky Doney—who later told investigators that he'd stopped fighting at that point, which video evidence confirms—placed him in a hobble restraint.

Firkins stayed prone until officer Garrett Tillet noticed that the "fine dust" on the ground under his face was no longer moving. He felt under his nose and couldn't find his breath.

"Yeah he was breathing... and his breathing was shallow about twenty seconds earlier, and then I took my hands off him," Officer Krohn told the arriving EMTs.

Firkins had no pulse by the time the medics arrived. They took him to the ER, where doctors tried to revive him, pumping his chest. They briefly brought back a pulse, but it didn't last. He was pronounced dead shortly after five in the morning.


In 2014, a Filer, Idaho, officer shot and killed a black lab. The story was widely reported, the dead dog memorialized on a Facebook page with more than 11,000 likes demanding that "Officer Hassani get out of Filer, Idaho." The mayor and city council faced a recall campaign over the incident.

Julie Firkins couldn't understand why a dead dog got more attention than her dead husband.

Both she and Anthony Sr. still don't get why no one faced any consequences for her husband's death, or why the family didn't even get an apology. It took Julie ten months to even get access to one of the videos—the chief of police let her watch it, but only if she promised not to bring recording materials into the room (the Nampa Police Department declined to comment, noting that the statute of limitations hadn't expired).

Eventually, the family gave up on suing, because the amount of money they might have obtained in a lawsuit wouldn't have offset the money spent on lawyers and experts, and money is tight. Anthony Firkins left three kids behind, now aged 12, eight, and six.

"We're talking about a human being's life," says Anthony Sr. "Three boys," he adds of the kids. "I wish I could have filmed the funeral, so [the police] could see their broken hearts."

A version of this article was originally published by the Influence, a news site that covers the full spectrum of human relationships with drugs. Follow the Influence on Facebook or Twitter.

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