Stockton, CA — Shayne Sutherland was a father of two, a peewee football coach, and worked at the local union. He also had mental health issues and struggled with substance abuse. On October 8, 2020, Sutherland would die in need of help for his mental health issues after receiving police force instead. Now, because the officers involved in his death weren’t held accountable, the taxpayers of Stockton will pay up instead.
“If the city of Stockton won’t do their job and if the district attorney won’t do their job, we will do our job and get justice for this family,” civil rights attorney James Desimone told Fox 40.
“Ronald Zalunardo and John Afanasiev, the Stockton police officers, have murdered my son by asphyxiation,” Karen Sutherland, Shayne’s mother said at a press conference on Tuesday. “They need to be fired from Stockton Police Department and never be allowed to work as a police officer again. And they also need to be charged my son’s murder.”
In what started as a disturbance inside a convenience store, quickly morphed into an in-custody death. That night, Sutherland was in the midst of a mental health crisis. He had harmed no one, but according to the store employee was waving around a bottle of wine, saying he was going to throw it. He never threw it.
Illustrating the severity of Sutherland’s crisis, he was the one who initially called 911. When he called police, he asked them to send a taxi to the store, claiming someone had robbed him.
When police showed up, Sutherland was entirely compliant, doing everything police asked and cooperated with them to the fullest extent. He even admitted to having a drug problem and that he “used cocaine” earlier that day.
The officers offered no help and instead belittled and made fun of him for several minutes. As they were verbally berating him, for some reason, Sutherland stood up and then immediately realized that was a mistake, saying “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Thinking he was a threat, police threw the father of two to the ground and handcuffed him as Sutherland began to panic. For several minutes, Sutherland begged for his life, saying “please let me breathe” and telling police they were killing him.
Sadly, he was right. Moments later, after having police on top of him, squeezing the air from his lungs, Sutherland became unresponsive, stopped breathing, and died.
TFTP spoke to Karen at the time, who told us that the “official” police story of what authorities told her was not true and the body camera footage proves it.
“The cops lied to me and told me my son stood up, collapsed and stopped breathing and denied any physical contact with my son,” she told TFTP in an exclusive interview.
It is entirely clear from the video that Sutherland did not collapse and instead was tackled to the ground and held down. In fact, when Sutherland started struggling, one officer gestures to the other and tells him to ease up because Sutherland was “turning colors.”
“They had him down on the ground in cuffs and the officer was laying on him with his arm over pressing into my son’s neck while my son was begging for his life and telling them they were killing him,” she said, adding, “my son admitted to drug use but had no weapon.”
Indeed, Sutherland had no history of violence, was not a threat, and had simply been accused of threatening to throw a bottle of wine.
After he died, police waited nearly a month to release the body camera footage and when they did, it was presented with their narrative. According to the San Joaquin County Medical Examiner’s preliminary autopsy report, there “was no inflicted trauma or injuries to the decedent that caused his death.”
However, one does not need to be physically injured to have the air squeezed from their lungs until they die. According to the examiner’s office, the cause of death is still pending and waiting on a toxicology report and other tests.
“And his words become more and more garbled as you can see him struggling for breath,” Desimone said. “This went on for close to three minutes as these officers didn’t get up and they didn’t let up.”
To the frequent readers of the Free Thought Project, this type of scenario unfolds all too often. Someone in a mental health crisis is confronted by police, handcuffed, held down, panics, and stops breathing as a result.
Elijah McClain faced a similar fate in Aurora, Colorado. Like Sutherland, Tony Timpa also called police who showed up, mocked him, and squeezed the air from his lungs until he died. The list goes on and likely will continue to go on until police officers either get better training in dealing with the mentally ill, or major changes take place.
Fortunately, some cities are making these changes. On June 1, Denver began the Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) program, which sends a mental health professional and a paramedic to some 911 calls instead of cops. According to their latest data, STAR has responded to nearly 400 calls to 911 in which police would have normally been sent out. The STAR team — armed only with experience and compassion — has never once called police to back them up and has a 100% non-violent success rate.
Had Sutherland received a STAR team instead of the cops who mocked him, he would likely be getting the help he so direly needed that night. Sadly, it is now too late for that.
“Money is not going to bring my son back, but he does have two children, two small children that he’s no longer here,” Sutherland said of the lawsuit. “He was a hard worker, he provided for his family, and now he’s no longer here to do that.”