June 2, 1981: Ron Settles was murdered while in police custody by Signal Hill Police in California.
Ron Settles was a California State University, Long Beach and Banning High School football player who was arrested by the Signal Hill Police Department in 1981.
The Arrest and Murder:
The incident began when he was pulled over for speeding by the Signal Hill Police Department in Long Beach, California. He was arrested after a scuffle with SHPD white officers.
The morning after his arrest, he was found severely beaten and hung in his jail cell. A furor erupted afterwards over the nature of his death, as the police said the death was a suicide. No one was prosecuted for Settles’ death, but the city of Signal Hill did pay a large settlement to the family.
The case had long-term impacts on the reputation of Signal Hill, although a new police chief took steps to reform the police department. The case was an early high-profile case handled by attorney Johnnie Cochran, who represented the family. One of the policemen implicated in the incident was also represented by another noted civil rights attorney, Stephen Yagman.
In a subsequent coroner’s inquest, attorney Johnny Cochran demonstrated the chokehold, which resulted in a jury’s finding that Settles had died “at the hands of another.” Moreover, the decision was reversed in court following the testimony of Dr. Michael Baden, who determined there was no evidence that Settles had died from hanging, but was most likely killed by a chokehold.
The city settled with the Settles out of court in 1983 for $1 million dollars.
Settles’ death was one of several highly controversial deaths of arrestees in the 1970s and 80s that changed the way police departments dealt with prisoners. Many police departments now videotape jail areas; any time a police officer or correctional officer touches a prisoner in a restraining way, a report is required to be written. These measures are intended to decrease the chances of police brutality in prison cells.
In Pop Culture: Settles’ story was told by Dr. Baden on the HBO series, Autopsy.
Charles Burnett’s 1995 film, The Glass Shield, was partially based on the Settles case.
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