A family in Indianapolis, Indiana, is suing the city and its police department for the death of Eleanor Northington, a woman who died in church two years ago with a cop’s knee digging into her back. 

As she struggled in her final moments, the 43-year-old Black mom of three uttered the familiar words heard in the killings of Eric Garner and George Floyd.

“I can’t breathe,” she said. 

The fatal incident happened on the night of February 6, 2019, when police responded to reports of a woman suffering from a mental health crisis at the Mt. Calvary Apostolic Church, VICE reported. Multiple officers arrived at the scene and wrestled with the woman, who was believed to be assaulting and spitting at members of the church. 

Police said she fought back as they tried to handcuff her and also attempted to spit on the officers. The pastor of the church then placed a cloth over Northington’s mouth, trying to prevent her from spitting on officers, the lawsuit states. After placing her in handcuffs, deputies pinned Northington face-down on the carpet flooring with the cloth still covering her face.

While the 43-year-old complained about not being able to breathe, officers ignored her cues, then tried to revive her with CPR after taking off the handcuffs, the lawsuit states. Northington died at the hospital two days later after she was taken off life support. 

Although police were accused of placing a knee on Northington’s back during the struggle, the autopsy report didn’t directly tie her death to the controversial move. Additionally, medical examiners noted pre-existing conditions such as obesity and an enlarged heart, which were described as likely factors in her death more than the use of force. Her cause of death was identified as a brain injury caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain, the IndyStar reported

D’Asia Montgomery, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of her mother on Monday, said the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, the city of Indianapolis and the church played a role in the death, causing “economic and emotional losses” for the family. The complaint adds that police violated Northington’s Fourth and 14th Amendment rights and used excessive force while detaining her. 

“Defendants should have known that handcuffing a massively obese woman, face down in shag carpet would likely cause serious injury or death,” the lawsuit reads. “That excessive force caused Ms. Northington to suffocate to death.”

The complaint also brings a charge of negligence against Mt. Calvary Apostolic Church.

“Mt. Calvary owes a duty to its congregants to keep its parishioners safe,” the complaint states. “Mt. Calvary breached that duty when one of its pastors placed a cloth over Ms. Northington’s mouth, impeding her airways.”

The five officers, who were placed on leave after the incident, were reinstated after an internal investigation determined that they’re not guilty of violating administrative rules. 

In a 2019 interview with the IndyStar, Montgomery said her mother’s health could have been a factor in her death.

“I’m against police brutality. I’m for Black Lives Matter. Nobody should be mishandled. But I don’t feel like they mishandled my mom,” said Montgomery, who is in charge of her mother’s estate.

Speaking to the publication five months after the initial interview, the daughter said she’s looking for more information in the case. 

“It’s just not making sense to me,” she said. “Something is not adding up.”

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