Why one popular body restraint used by police can't always guarantee safety
When you think of the tools in a police officer’s toolkit, you probably think of devices like handcuffs, pepper spray, and stun guns. But there’s another device that you probably haven’t heard of. It’s called the WRAP.
It’s a body restraint that straps around a suspects’ legs so they can’t move. The WRAP was invented twenty years ago by two former Walnut Creek police officers. They say no one has ever died or been injured because of the device.
But last spring, newly released body camera footage showed the death of James Greer, who died while inside the WRAP back in 2014. So, how can the police and the public know what devices are safe?
The death of James Greer
Attorney Fulvio Cajina remembers watching the body camera footage of James Greer’s death for the first time. The chaotic scene was filmed back in 2014, after Greer was pulled over for driving recklessly.
“You’re not under arrest,” an officer can be heard telling Greer in the video. “How much did you have to drink tonight?”
The officer then gives Greer a field sobriety test. Hayward and BART officers are at the scene. Greer starts panicking, and takes a couple of steps back.
“Wait a minute,” an officer says. “Don’t be walking away.”
Greer begins to scream. “What are you guys doing to me?” he says.
“The officers decided to bring him to the floor, to the ground, and while on the ground several officers tased him repeatedly. Eventually he lost consciousness,” Cajina says.
Where the WRAP comes in
According to court documents, BART police say that officers involved and Greer all “inexplicably” ended up on the ground during a struggle. This is where Cajina and officers disagree.
While on the ground, officers placed Greer inside a body restraint, called the WRAP. It’s kind of like a straightjacket for the legs. Officers use it to restrain suspects who seem violent. They say they placed Greer inside the device before he was unconscious. But Cajina thinks Greer had already lost consciousness when officers placed him inside the device.
“You alright, bud? Take a few breaths,” one of the officers says in the video. “You alright dude? Hey, wake up.”
According to Cajina, by the time paramedics arrived, and CPR was started, it was too late. Greer died.
Greer isn’t the only person in the Bay Area who has died while inside the WRAP.
“We know of at least four cases where people have died in similar cases where the WRAP has been used,” Cajina says. “We don't know if it's the WRAP that's causing it, or improper use of the WRAP.”
A safer alternative
Hayward police Sergeant Tasha DeCosta says she can’t comment on pending cases, like Greer’s. She says the WRAP is only used in violent confrontations in Hayward by higher ups who are re-trained at least once a year. New devices like the WRAP usually need city council approval.
“I know that it's been really effective for us in keeping people from hurting themselves, being able to contain somebody and calm them down and give them a little bit of time so they're not flailing about and hurting folks,” DeCosta said.
And actually, the WRAP was brought to Hayward as a safe alternative to the Hobble, or hogtying suspects. That’s where a suspect’s ankles are tied to their handcuffs. Former Walnut Creek officer Craig Zamolo invented the WRAP.
“I used to hogtie, probably, hundreds of times. There was no risk ever identified to me, prior to the mid-90s,” he says. “But you know, they were having maybe 20, maybe 30 deaths across the United States.”
Medical studies, field tests, and oversight
Zamolo invented the WRAP, and Walnut Creek police started running field tests to see if it would work for them.
“We've had two medical studies done before we ever put it out on the street, to make sure the risk of injury from this application is basically zero,” Zamolo says.
But the Greers' family attorney Fulvio Cajina is skeptical. One of the medical studies was conducted by the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Deaths, also founded by a former police officer.
“No, the FDA does not have to okay this, the WRAP agency is ran by former police officers, they’re making the device for police to use, and no one’s really doing any oversight of these devices,” Cajina says.
Trying on the WRAP
Still, Zamolo insists that no one has ever died or been injured because of the WRAP. He wants to show me just how safe it feels. So, at a police training academy in Pittsburg, Zamolo gets out the WRAP.
“I'm going to put these cuffs on, so you get the full idea. Just go ahead, lay down on your stomach...been arrested before?” Zamolo jokes.
He slides the WRAP leg restraint underneath me. He ties what are basically seatbelts around my legs, so I can’t move them.
“When you bring an animal in to get sutured or something like that, they'll wrap them up in a sheet, real tight, and the body will relax because they can't fight,” Zamolo explains. “It locks up the major muscle groups, they can’t move. They can’t fight the product, so they’re calming down.”
And the WRAP is actually kind of cozy. But not being able to move still feels scary. And I’m not even being arrested. But Zamolo says it’s safe. Over 400 law enforcement agencies across the country now use the device.
“That's not to say something might happen...people that we deal with are violent, under the influence of drugs, they're not in the best psychical condition, they're running their body physically beyond what it can take,” Zamolo says.
How to explain suspicious deaths
Forensic pathologist Dr. Joseph Cohen says that deaths are possible whenever there’s that kind of violent struggle. His job is to explain suspicious deaths. He says so many factors are at play during in custody deaths that it’s hard to blame any one piece of equipment.
“With the use of any device, any restraint device, or any less than lethal use of force device, at some point someone is going to die with association of that device, no question,” Cohen says.
He sadds that devices like the WRAP or the TASER are meant to restrain suspects, and force involves emotional and physical risks.
“They’re invented to control that person without having to shoot and kill that person,” he says.
Questions linger in Greer’s death
So, how can the public know which weapons increase risks of fatalities? James Greer died in the WRAP after a long struggle. Greer’s family Attorney Fulvio Cajina says the problem is bigger than the WRAP. He doesn’t think officers cared about Greer’s medical needs.
“The WRAP leaves you in an upward, seated position, and it's impossible to get chest compressions in that position,” he says. “So many minutes went by, because of this device, and Mr. Greer didn't get the life saving help he needed.”
BART police who were there when Greer died disagree. They say CPR wasn’t delayed, and firefighters nearby couldn’t provide medical attention until the scene was safe. But Cajina just doesn’t buy that officers needed to use the WRAP device at all.
“There was no need to TASER him, there was no need to get on top of him, there was no need to use this WRAP device once he was unconscious,” he says. “The problem with all these devices is the more you give them to the officers, the more they feel like they have to use them.”
The coroner’s report issued following Greer’s death said he died as a result of PCP combined with physical exhaustion. The City of Hayward agreed to settle the case pending city council approval. In the meantime, the founders of the WRAP say their device should be available to more than one thousand police agencies over the next five years.