Tony Timpa Can’t Breathe

This blog is about the death of Tony Timpa and what his example may tell us about police tactics. Also, what it tells us about racial politics in America. Tony died at the hands of officers of the Dallas Police Department. He was held down for 14 minutes. A cop put a knee in Tony’s back. It took three years for attorneys to drag out the DPD the officer’s body cam footage. The video is disturbing to watch. Tony begs the officers to stop holding him down. He struggles to breathe. Then he dies.

Erik Heipt, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in cases of in-custody deaths, said this about Tony’s case: “It’s just basic science: People can be essentially suffocated to death when they’re lying on their stomachs in a prone position and there’s weight on their backs compressing their chest and diaphragm.” Perhaps Timpa’s obesity put him as risk for positional asphyxia. While his death was ruled a homicide, medical examiners cannot even say for sure what killed him. But his death nonetheless sparked no riots.

Media coverage of police killings would leave you with the distinct impression that there are no Tony Timpas. The truth is there most victims of lethal police action are white men. Is that why there was so little public outcry about the Timpa killing? It’s not that the media didn’t cover it. The officers mocked Timpa as he died and that made it newsworthy. “Tony, we bought you new shoes for the first day of school,” one officer can be heard saying. There was talk of waffles as encouragement for him to wake up. The police later rationalized their talk as a “tactic.” But the media coverage soon died away.

I know we’re not supposed to think about this, let alone say it, but the problem of cops killing men is not a race thing. At least not usually. Almost never, really. While most men killed by the cops are white, controlling for the level of neighborhood crime and violence, white men are not proportionally more likely to be killed by the cops. The media agenda is to reinforce a myth that black men are disproportionately killed by cops and always for racist reasons. A white corpse is inconvenient to that narrative. But to say that some corpses weigh more on the scales of justice than others sacrifices morality on the altar of politics.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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