Police clung to crash theory in Black man’s fatal arrest

Police officials quietly commissioned a study late last year into the role the crash could have played in Ronald Greene’s 2019 death

More than a year and a half after Louisiana state troopers were captured on body camera video brutalizing Black motorist Ronald Greene during his fatal arrest, police brass were still trying to blame his death on a car crash at the end of a high-speed chase.

Police officials quietly commissioned a study late last year into the role the crash could have played in Greene’s 2019 death, part of a behind-the-scenes bid to reduce the agency’s legal liability, according to internal documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The effort came despite the footage showing troopers stunning, punching and dragging the unarmed man — and one trooper’s admission that he bashed him in the head with a flashlight, a use of deadly force not previously reported.

The documents, which also detail how four troopers grossly exaggerated Greene’s threat to justify their uses of force, provide the fullest account yet of the deadly May 10, 2019, arrest. And they show the extent to which top brass and troopers alike sought to cover up or explain away actions in a case that is now the focus of a federal civil rights investigation.

“It’s horrific,” Greene’s mother, Mona Hardin, told the AP. “There’s nothing they can say to change, to warp, what’s shown. I don’t care which way they want to coat it, what different colors of paint they want to layer on this mess — they can’t erase it.”

Greene, a 49-year-old barber, failed to pull over for a traffic violation and led troopers on a midnight chase across rural northern Louisiana at speeds of up to 115 mph (185 kph) before his car spun to a stop on a roadside near Monroe.

Troopers told Greene’s relatives hours later that he died on impact after crashing into a tree, an explanation called into question by photos of Greene’s body on a gurney showing his bruised and battered face, a hospital report noting he had two stun gun prongs in his back, and the fact that his SUV had only minor damage.

Even Louisiana State Police appeared to back off the crash explanation later when they issued a one-page statement saying only that Greene struggled with troopers who were trying to arrest him and that he died on his way to the hospital.

The truth about what really happened began to emerge last month when the AP obtained and published body camera video showing troopers converging on Greene’s car, repeatedly jolting him with a stun gun, wrestling him to the ground, putting him in a chokehold and punching him in the face, all while he apologizes and wails for mercy. A trooper can later be seen dragging a shackled Greene facedown and then leaving him unattended in a prone position for more than nine minutes before he finally became unresponsive.

But even after viewing that footage internally, and just three weeks after showing it privately to Greene’s family, ranking police officials last November remained fixated on blaming the man’s death on a car crash. They quietly asked a crash reconstructionist to estimate the “g-force” Greene might have suffered in a crash, suggesting that may have accounted for his fatal injuries.

Though the autopsy listed Greene’s cause of death as “cocaine induced agitated delirium complicated by motor vehicle collision, physical struggle, inflicted head injury and restraint,” it notably left unresolved whether some of Greene’s most significant injuries —a fractured breastbone and lacerated aorta — were caused by the crash or state troopers.

One high-ranking official, Capt. John Peters, wrote in a November email to a state police attorney that the crash reconstructionist estimated that the “violent rotation” of Greene’s vehicle — combined with “impacts” and the sudden speed reduction when the chase ended — “generated approximately 19g’s of force.” Aortic ruptures can occur in crashes, experts said, but depend on many factors.

“That could have significant value on the civil side as we try to reduce our percentage of liability,” he added.

Faye Morrison, a state police attorney, responded: “This will definitely be important re cause of death and damages.”

Morrison was reassigned this week as the agency investigates her role in the Greene case.

Capt. Nick Manale, a state police spokesperson, said only that the crash reconstruction “was part of an ongoing investigation.”

“It shows misplaced efforts and attention,” said Rafael Goyeneche, a former prosecutor who is president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a New Orleans-based watchdog group. “They’re more focused on civil liability issues than the conduct of the troopers.”

Family members of Ronald Greene listen to speakers as they gather at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington August 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. Greene died in police custody following a high-speed chase in Louisiana in 2019. Today marks the 57th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the same location. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Master Trooper Chris Hollingsworth told investigators that Greene “didn’t have any apparent injuries” when he rushed the man’s SUV following the chase.

Hollingsworth, who was later recorded saying “he beat the ever-living f— out of” Greene, told investigators he was aware the head was a “red zone” of deadly force but acknowledged striking Greene in the head three times with a flashlight and jolting him six times with a stun gun out of fear for his own safety.

“He was much bigger than I was and much stronger, and he had already kept two troopers from being able to handcuff him,” Hollingsworth said. “He could have done anything once my hold was broke off of him.”

Shown the gurney pictures of Greene’s body, Hollingsworth acknowledged the flashlight could have caused the half-moon shaped gashes on his head but added, “I’m not a doctor.”

Police spokesperson Manale did not comment on Hollingsworth’s use of deadly force. Hollingsworth died in a single-vehicle crash last year just hours after learning he would be fired for his role in Greene’s arrest.

The documents show Hollingsworth and three other troopers greatly overstated Greene’s resistance to justify their use of force, with one telling investigators he had survived “a fight for his life” and another falsely contending that even after Greene was cuffed and shackled, he was “constantly moving, trying to get up.”

But investigators said those concerns weren’t justified based on body camera footage that showed Greene appearing to raise his hands and saying over and over, “OK, OK. I’m sorry” and “I’m your brother! I’m scared! I’m scared!”

“I’ve had a female fight me and put up a much bigger fight than what I’m seeing on this video,” one investigator remarked, contending Hollingsworth and another responding trooper, Dakota DeMoss, never gave Greene a chance to surrender.

DeMoss, who was recently fired, also admitted to investigators it was a “rookie move” to leave Greene handcuffed facedown on the ground with his hands and feet restrained for more than nine minutes — a tactic use-of-force experts have criticized as dangerous and likely to have restricted his breathing.

DeMoss said he “got a knot in his stomach” when he learned Greene had died.

“I could tell by the way the paramedics were looking at each other,” he told investigators. “I just got this gut-wrenching sick feeling.”

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