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A man died while being detained by Helsinki police. What happened?

Svenska Yle reviewed the case of Samuel Dolphyne and found that certain risk factors may have contributed to his death.

Vägskylt där det står Övre Malm.
Samuel Dolphyne had a fateful encounter with police in Malmi in November 2018. Image: Yle/ Christoffer Gröhn

In 2018, a man suspected of drunk driving lost consciousness and died after being restrained by police. An investigation cleared the police involved of causing his death, but the results of the investigation remain classified.

Svenska Yle re-examined the case of Ghanaian Samuel Dolphyne and found that some risk factors were likely present during the encounter with police. The recreation of what happened that night is based on the investigation conducted by prosecutors.

On Saturday 17 November, 2018, Dolphyne, a Ghanaian resident in Austria and a friend resident in Finland attended a party organised by a local Ghanaian group in Helsinki’s Siltamäki district. Dolphyne, his friend and a third person left the party by car after 11pm, with Dolphyne at the wheel. "I wasn't with him (Dolphyne) all the time at the party. I played music during the party, but I saw that he was drinking a beer," the friend later told police.

In Malmi, a police patrol with two constables followed and pulled Dolphyne over, saying that he was travelling at 60 kilometres per hour in a 30 - 40-kilometre-per-hour zone. After failed attempts to administer a proper breathalyser test, they decided to place him in the patrol car and take him for a blood test to determine his blood alcohol level.

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Vägkorsning i Övre Malm i Helsingfors. I bakgrunden finns en kyrka med ett stort kors på väggen.
Police stopped Dolphyne at the intersection of Kunnantie and Kirkonkyläntie. Image: Yle/ Christoffer Gröhn

Dolphyne resisted as the police officers tried to get him into the patrol car. According to the officers he became upset and aggressive. They wrestled him to the ground and handcuffed him as he lay on his stomach. According to the police account, Dolphyne continued to kick at the police, trying to get off the ground. The younger officer allegedly moved pressure from the centre of the body to the back of Dolphyne’s thigh, while the other tried to use his legs to prevent the suspect from kicking.

Something was not right

At this point, another patrol that the senior cop radioed for help arrived at the scene. They saw two policemen trying to restrain a man on the ground while another man shouted at them -- it was Dolphyne’s friend, who had now got out of the car.

"I saw two police officers. One was on Dolphyne’s back and the other was holding his neck and trying to hold his head. I was stressed and shouted at the police. I was about 30 metres from the spot. At first I was five metres away but the police told me to move," the friend said during questioning. Police later denied that they held the man by his neck.

The two officers in the second patrol grabbed and secured Dolphyne’s legs with restraints. The older constable from the first patrol continued to use his body weight to subdue Dolphyne. Police said that the entire situation lasted between two and two and half minutes and that Dolphyne was still moving. He was then taken to the car, but the younger officer noticed that something was not right -- Dolphyne was not responding to verbal commands. Police then removed the handcuffs and leg restraints and administered first aid. They called an ambulance that rushed Dolphyne to Meilahti hospital.

An investigation found that the situation lasted for 15 minutes, from 11.20 to 11.35pm.

No drugs or alcohol detected

The following day at 4pm, the Helsinki police department issued a press release indicating that a man "suspected of drunk driving suddenly lost consciousness during an arrest in Malmi". Half an hour later, the hospital informed police that Dolphyne had died. He was 45.

Blood tests taken at the hospital showed no alcohol or drugs in the dead man’s system. A death in police custody always triggers an investigation. In Dolphyne’s case prosecutors cleared police of wrongdoing but classified the results of the investigation, so it remains unclear why he died.

"The investigation into the cause of death shows that police use of force has not directly caused Dolphyne's death," the prosecutor wrote at the time.

Risk factors involved

Ingemar Thiblin, a professor of forensic medicine at Sweden’s Uppsala University, said he cannot comment on the police officers’ actions in the case of Samuel Dolphyne, but he did highlight potential risk factors in placing a person to lie on their stomach.

"For a healthy person, there are no major risks except that breathing is slightly affected. If it occurs during a struggle, breathing can be at risk. Furthermore, if the person is highly agitated and stressed, that creates another risk factor. In addition, if the person is obese and has a large stomach, there is a risk of putting pressure on the diaphragm from below," Thiblin told Svenska Yle.

It is possible to conclude from the police statements that Dolphyne was aggressive and upset. He was also said to have a fairly large stomach. Without directly stating what caused his death, it is possible that some risk factors were present during his detention.

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Ylilääkäri Ingemar Thiblin, Ruotsin oikeuslääkintävirasto
Professor Ingemar Thiblin authored a report on deaths in police custody. Image: Yle, Ghadi Boustani

Sitting position used in Sweden

In 2011, Thiblin authored a report titled "Deaths by police intervention" in which he also looked at studies that recommended people be placed in a stomach-down position for as short a period as possible. In addition, restraint techniques should be designed to minimise pressure on the torso or upper body, the report advised.

"In the past, guidelines in Sweden were to subdue a person and hold them until they calm down before putting on handcuffs. Now the recommendation is to put on handcuffs as soon as possible and then place the person in a sitting position. Since the new guidelines were introduced, this type of death has decreased," Thiblin said.

"It seems to have an effect and is something for police to consider. In addition, the restraint technique has been redesigned to only hold the arms and not to apply pressure to the torso or upper body," he added.

Jani Vainio is a use of force instructor at Finland’s Police University College in Tampere. He declined to be interviewed about arrest and restraint techniques used in Finland but said via email that such information is classified.

"The police choose the most appropriate means of force based on the person's resistance, the circumstances and other factors that influence the situation," Vainio wrote.

The National Police Board also told Svenska Yle that use of force instructions are confidential.

Handcuffs can cause stress

Helsinki University professor of forensic medicine Antti Sajantila said he preferred not to comment on the Dolphyne case but volunteered his opinion on the risks associated with applying pressure on someone lying on their stomach.

"Empirical studies show that breathing is hampered by pressure on the back, but this may not be significant from a clinical point of view. A simulation similar to an arrest situation has been conducted. The person moved so that the heart rate rose and was then placed on the stomach with weight on the back. Breathing became more difficult but it should not lead to clinical problems," Sajantila concluded.

Sajantila said that handcuffs can cause stress and noted that even young people have died of sudden cardiac arrest although they had no structural heart failure.

"Some genes may predict a tendency for [heart] rhythm disorders," he added.

"Pressing on the neck is another matter, but pressure on the back and the area around the lungs should not have the same impact. But it can be significant in the case of a stressful situation and can cause sudden cardiac arrest. More genetic research is needed to understand which mechanisms are at play," he said.

The professor of forensic medicine said he sees no need to advise the police to avoid keeping people on their stomachs for long periods.

"It is a difficult question because different people react in different ways. But one factor that can be looked at is the genetic factors behind rhythm disorders that can be triggered by the stress of being arrested by police. But the police cannot know this in advance," Sajantila noted.

Buried in 2019, remembered in 2020

Samuel Dolphyne was buried in Helsinki in early 2019. Some time after his death, his sister said in a Facebook video that she would raise money to have him buried in Austria. That never happened.

Instead, he was buried in Malmi cemetery on a snowy day on 31 January, 2019. Svenska Yle reached out to Dolphyne’s friend who was at the scene when he was detained, but he did not want to be interviewed. Nor did the police involved. Helsinki police department said that individual police officers do not comment on cases.

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Demonstranter med Black Lives Matter-plakat.
A group of demonstrators gathered outside Helsinki's Pasila police station in June. Image: Yle/ Matti Myller

Inspired by global Black Lives Matter protests over the death of George Floyd last month, people gathered outside Helsinki’s Pasila police station in Helsinki for a demonstration organised by the African Anti-Racism Society.

The African community say they want answers to the question of what happened to Samuel Dolphyne during his detention by police in 2018.

"We do not have information about what happened and we want justice. We have not seen any report on it, but we are not accusing the police. We just want to know what caused his death," human rights activist Eugene Ufoka said.

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