Tucson chief offers to resign over handling of police-custody death in April

Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus, shown in this November 2018 photograph, says the officers in the April 21 death of Carlos Adrian Ingram-Lopez failed to follow their training. (Photo courtesy of Michel Marizco/KJZZ)

Two months after a Tucson man died in police custody, a federal investigation is underway and the city’s government is in turmoil after three officers who were involved resigned and the chief of police submitted his own resignation.

The police body camera video of the April 21 incident is disturbing.

Carlos Adrian Ingram-Lopez, 27, who’s lying facedown on the floor, begins to scream. Tucson police say his grandmother had called for help because he had been running around intoxicated and shouting.

Ingram-Lopez moans and asks for water. Twelve minutes later, he’s dead. An autopsy by the Pima County Medical Examiner showed he’d been restrained, a spit hood placed over his head. It also showed he had an enlarged heart and was high on cocaine when he died, and that he had a significant history of cocaine use. Police say the officers placed a disposable blanket over his body and a second over his head.

Although the report found “sudden cardiac arrest in the setting of acute cocaine intoxication and physical restraint” it did not determine a cause of death.

Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus said Wednesday that the officers involved were White and Black and that Ingram-Lopez’s death should not be taken in the context of George Floyd’s at the hands of police in Minneapolis or other recent cases in Kentucky and Georgia in which police have killed Black men and women.

“It is important to note there is no indication of malicious intent, nor did any of the officers use strikes, chokeholds or place a knee on Mr. Ingram-Lopez’s neck,” he said.

But he said the officers, who resigned Friday amid an administrative investigation, failed to handle the incident as they were trained. The officers would have been fired anyway, authorities said.

Then Magnus offered to quit.

“To demonstrate my willingness to take accountability for these mistakes, I am offering my resignation to the mayor, the City Council and the city manager, which they can accept or handle as they deem appropriate,” he said.

Mayor Regina Romero expressed surprise at Magnus’ offer, calling him “an honest and great” police chief, according to the Associated Press.

The mistakes he referenced were twofold: First, the incident was never made public until it was reported this month by the Tucson Sentinel news website. Law enforcement agencies typically give at least rudimentary information about a death in custody within a few days. In this case, the police department’s top officials were briefed but they didn’t view the body cam footage, though investigators did.

Magnus attributed both mistakes to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ll remind you that this incident took place at the start of the most intense period of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

The FBI is investigating the case and the Pima County Attorney’s Office is weighing potential criminal charges against the former officers. Romero sought to get out in front of any potential police protests that could occur.

“I ask that we engage in civil, constructive and peaceful dialogue and work together for change,” she said.

Councilwoman Lane Santa Cruz said in a statement that police acted violently, refused to give Ingram-Lopez water, ignored his complaints that he couldn’t breathe and used a plastic blanket over him as a weapon.

Santa Cruz said the mayor and City Council should push to ensure the police department is transparent about any in-custody deaths and on “community input processes, establish a time frame for case review and the release of this information, and institute community governance over police.”

The Fronteras Desk is a unique KJZZ project that covers a wide expanse of an undercovered news desert that stretches from northern Arizona deep into northwestern Mexico.