Man who died in Wichita police custody had trouble breathing during arrest, autopsy says

The autopsy of a man who died while being arrested by Wichita police said he had a lethal level of methamphetamine in his system, but notes that officers may have contributed to his death.

Thomas W. Dempsey, 47, who weighed 340 pounds, complained about trouble breathing while laying on his stomach during his arrest and lost consciousness while being handcuffed. He died outside his home in northwest Wichita in June 2023.

Dr. Scott Kipper, with the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center, said in the autopsy that it is his opinion Dempsey died of methamphetamine toxicity.

But the prone position police put Dempsey into — with an officer kneeling on his back or shoulder while officers daisy-chained three handcuffs together to arrest him — “cannot be ruled out” as a factor in his death, Kipper wrote in the autopsy.

Kipper said the cause of death is best classified as undetermined since the “extent, if any, to which the actions of arrested officers may have accelerated Mr. Dempsey’s death cannot be definitively determined.”

Police responded at 5:21 a.m. on June 25 to the 2700 block of North Parkridge after Dempsey called 911 to tell them he may have killed his wife. Nicole Dempsey, 44, was found fatally shot inside.

Dempsey had been complying with officers to come down off his porch and lying on the ground before complaining about feeling bloated and having trouble breathing, Kipper wrote.

“Several times he attempts to roll onto his side while being ordered to remain face down and to place his hands behind his back,” Kipper wrote. “He continues to complain of not being able to breath when on his belly during the arrest/handcuffing process.”

Dempsey’s blood had 478 nanograms per milliliter of methamphetamine – what Kipper called a lethal level. Amphetamine was also found in his blood.

“Blood concentrations of methamphetamine related to toxicity can vary depending on drug use patterns, health conditions, and a number of other factors specific to individual users and situations,” the forensic science center said in a statement. “As such, a lethal range cannot be explicitly defined. The illicit use of methamphetamine is inherently unsafe.”

Under cause of death, Kipper said “other significant conditions included hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (which is a buildup of plaque in the arteries) , morbid obesity, and physical exertion with possible positional/mechanical asphyxia during apprehension by law enforcement.”

No charges, ongoing investigation

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said no charges would be filed against the officers since, “given the information provided, there was insufficient evidence to establish that a crime was committed by any of the officers.”

Kneeling on someone’s back or shoulder during an arrest doesn’t violate any police policy; there also isn’t anything in the policy about placing a heavier person on their stomach.

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which was requested by the Wichita Police Department to investigate the in-custody death, presented its findings, along with the autopsy, to Bennett on Aug. 25.

The WPD started an internal investigation after Bennett reached his decision. Police Chief Joe Sullivan said he would not comment while that is underway.

Citing the ongoing internal investigation, the police department denied The Eagle’s request for any body cam footage or any records and reports related to the death.

It’s not uncommon for internal investigations to take several months.

Footage and video

Dempsey appeared to be unresponsive shortly before the last handcuff was locked in place, Kipper wrote in the autopsy.

An officer noted Dempsey’s pulse was “very fast” while checking it several times after he became unresponsive.

“Several minutes after he became unresponsive, resuscitative efforts are initiated,” Kipper wrote. “The cessation and resuscitative efforts and pronouncement of death are not seen in the provided video clips.”

It’s unclear why that part wasn’t provided to the medical examiner.

Kipper said he reviewed a neighbor’s security camera and “officer body cam footage” as part of his autopsy.

“This footage shows Mr. Dempsey appearing to possibly be intoxicated/under the influence of an unknown substance,” Kipper wrote. “He was also noted to have apparent labored breathing.”

Kipper added:

“The above noted video review strongly suggests that the position that Mr. Dempsey was placed into during apprehension may have contributed to his respiratory compromise. The possibility that such an increase in the respiratory compromise may have accelerated his death cannot be ruled out.”