Lawyers for the police officer who held Dallas resident Tony Timpa face down on the ground for more than 14 minutes until he died in 2016 have raised a connection to George Floyd’s death four years later to question whether Dallas officers should have known prior to the ensuing national debate that holding subjects in the “prone restraint” could be unlawful.
On December 29, the Dallas City Attorney’s Office filed an appeal challenging an appellate court’ panel ruling that four of the Dallas police officers were not entitled to qualified immunity protections in connection with the case of Timpa, who died after he suffered a mental-health breakdown and was subsequently pinned under officer Dustin Dillard’s knee for 14 minutes and seven seconds. The three-judge appellate court panel recently reversed a Dallas district court that granted the officers immunity from prosecution, ruling instead that a jury should decide the case. Besides Dillard, the other three officers – Danny Vasquez, Raymond Dominguez, and Kevin Mansell – are accused of not intervening in the case.
Attorneys for the officers are calling for an en banc review by the entire Fifth Circuit, arguing that the three-judge panel improperly “invoked broad principles from cases involving different types of force: strikes, dog bites, and tasers.” They also raised the connection to Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in 2020, noting that his killing “ignited a nationwide debate concerning authorities’ use of prone restraints.”
“Many police departments have changed their polices on prone restraints in response,” they wrote. “These developments raise the question of whether, prior to the ongoing national debate, the law in this circuit clearly proscribed prone restraint with weight applied to a subdued subject’s back such that every officer would have known such restraints are unlawful.”
En banc reviews are rare in the Fifth Circuit, with fewer than 1 percent of cases getting a rehearing. Geoff Henley, a lawyer representing Timpa’s family called the officers’ appeal a “hail Mary.” The Department of Justice has warned police agencies about the potential dangers of holding people face down in the prone restraint since at least the mid-1990s, he said.
“When they put somebody in the prone position,” Henley said, “it should be like four or five seconds, maybe ten, 15 at the most. Not 14 minutes and seven seconds.”
Henley noted that his team has intentionally not compared their case with Floyd’s.
“I think it’s really amazing that they are making this comparison, which invites a lot of replies,” Henley said, “one of which is, look, the city of Minneapolis said, ‘Oh, this was bad,’ and they paid the Floyd family $27 million, which is an extraordinary sum.”
The city of Dallas has not paid a settlement to Timpa’s family.
Timpa was 32 when he died in the custody of Dallas police officers in August 2016. He was suffering from a mental-health breakdown at the time, and had called 911 for help.
The Timpa case received renewed attention because of the many similarities between Timpa’s death and Floyd’s death. Both cases involved large men who’d taken drugs and died after they were pinned to the ground for an extended period in the prone position. Neither man was armed, and neither had committed a significant crime (police were called to the Timpa case for a medical emergency). Both men cried for help before they died (Timpa: “You’re gonna kill me.” Floyd: “I can’t breathe.”) And in neither case did officers attempt life-saving measures, even after Floyd and Timpa appeared limp and lifeless. In Timpa’s case, the officers mocked him, and joked after he’d lost consciousness that he needed to wake up because it was “time for school.”
But there was no national uproar after Timpa’s death, and no national cries for justice and reform. Many argued that was largely because of race — Timpa was white, Floyd was black. Another factor: a cell phone video of Floyd’s death was soon published on Facebook, while body camera footage from Timpa’s death wasn’t released for almost three years.
A grand jury indicted three of the Dallas officers on misdemeanor deadly conduct charges, but the district attorney dismissed them.
In their December 15 ruling, the three-judge panel noted that Timpa’s criminal liability was minor – “no more than a traffic violation,” and they questioned whether Timpa truly posed an immediate threat to the police officers or others. The Dallas Police Department instructs that all arrestees be placed in an upright position or on their side “as soon as [they] are brought under control,” the judges wrote. The jury could conclude that the continued use of force against Timpa was “objectively unreasonable,” they wrote, and the jury could find that the use of force constituted “deadly force.”
“In this case, it is well established that Tony was unarmed. Even if he was actually kicking and flailing, you can’t use deadly force in that manner,” Henley said. “We’ve maintained all along he never used any force at all. He squirmed, he was trying to get breaths of air.”
In August, two paramedics who were on scene when Timpa died were placed on probation for two years for not properly intervening in the encounter. The two medics also failed to report that they had given Timpa a sedative while he was being held down, and falsified Timpa’s patient care report, an investigation by the Texas state health department found.
At the time of his death, Timpa was working as a logistics broker for his family’s trucking company, and living in an upscale apartment in Dallas’s Uptown neighborhood. But a divorce that led to less contact with his son prompted bouts of depression and a struggle with drugs. He also was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Just after 10 p.m. on August 10, 2016, he called 911 from a parking lot of a Dallas-area pornography store saying that he was afraid of a man, and that he suffered from depression and schizophrenia. He also told a dispatcher he was off his medication.
He ended up running through traffic on a busy highway and climbing on a bus.