Sickle cell mystery or excuse? Sudden deaths of many young Black people while in police custody are often blamed on genetics. What does the science say?

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Credit: Pixnio/CNN
Credit: Pixnio/CNN

The New York Times has found at least 46… instances over the past 25 years in which medical examiners, law enforcement officials or defenders of accused officers pointed to [having the sickle cell] trait as a cause or major factor in deaths of Black people in custody. Fifteen such deaths have occurred since 2015.

In roughly two-thirds of the cases, the person who died had been forcefully restrained by the authorities, pepper-sprayed or shocked with stun guns. Scattered across 22 states and Puerto Rico, in big cities and small towns, the determinations on sickle cell trait often created enough doubt for officers to avert criminal or civil penalties, The Times found.

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Several doctors and researchers who spoke with The Times said they would be skeptical of in-custody deaths attributed to sickle cell trait, unless the situation also involved other risk factors.

“The analogy I would make would be to someone who has heart disease,” [former chief medical examiner for Washington DC, Dr. Roger] Mitchell said. “It might be true that they died because of heart disease, but, well, they probably would have lived if you hadn’t put them in a chokehold and stressed their heart.”

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