Sickle Cell Trait Cited in Police Custody Deaths

In a review of data on suspicious deaths from more than 30 of the largest U.S. counties, The New York Times found that sickle cell trait (SCT) was cited as a cause or factor in 47 deaths that occurred in law enforcement custody since the 1970s.

None of the deceased people included in the report had sickle cell disease (SCD), but in some cases, imprecise language gave the impression that SCT and SCD were interchangeable.

Not every death tied to the condition is automatically questionable according to medical experts who told The New York Times that SCT warrants mention in autopsies because, in rare cases, it can lead to death following extreme overexertion. For example, “the condition had been cited in the deaths of some military recruits because they are often made to run long distances in the heat and with heavy equipment without enough training or conditioning,” said Bruce Mitchell, MD, the former director of hospital medicine at Emory University Hospital Midtown in Atlanta, who has studied sudden death and SCT.

Of cases examined in the review, 19 involved people who died after being restrained in ways that could hinder breathing, 12 involved stun guns, 9 involved pepper spray, and two involved dog bites. Five cases were initially ruled as homicides, while the rest were accidental, natural, or undetermined.

Dr. Mitchell and other experts who spoke with The New York Times said any natural or accidental death attributed to SCT should be scrutinized if it occurred during or following an altercation with law enforcement, as bias or conflicts of interest among medical examiners and police officials may play a role in these determinations.

“Your reporting uncovered the unprofessional misuse of science that further contributes to racial bias and social injustice in our country,” ASH President Martin S. Tallman, MD, wrote in a letter to the editor published in The New York Times on May 25.

Source: The New York Times, May 15, 2021.