As announced by The New York Times, the Phoenix police have released the video recordings of the arrest of Carol Gotbaum, the woman who was found unresponsive and not breathing in one of Sky Harbor's holding cells (John Eligone, October 5, 2007). Upon first hearing a story of this nature, it would appear that Gotbaum had been the victim of negligence, bad conduct, and even amybe abuse by the Sky Harbor Internation Airport police. An employee of the airport who chooses to remain anonymous describes "Ms. Gotbaum as being unconscious before she was taken to the police holding area." When finally entering the holding cell, the police found Gotbaum "dead in the holding room with the shackle across her neck." While they tried to resusitate her, it was too late. But are the police really to blame in Carol Gotbaum's death? Or is too soon to be pointing fingers, blaming others simply to have someone to direct anger towards? And is there any chance that Carol Gotbaum is responsible for her own death?
The released videos shed an interesting light unto this shocking situation. Gotbaum was trying to catch a connecting flight to Tucson where she would be attending an alcoholic rehabilitation center when her disorderly conduct (supposedly from alcohol she drank on her flight into Phoenix) caused security to ask the police to calm her down. Gotbaum being an average woman of average height and weight, it seemed ridiculous that three male officers were needed to restrain her. Once viewing the video, however, the three officers almost seemed too little of a number. Eligone describes the difficulty of the arrest with such phrases as "a struggle to get her arm out from beneath her torso to cuff her behind her back...with her legs very stiff, forcing the officers to pull her along...leaning back with her legs seemingly locked." The police officers were doing their job while Gotbaum resisted passionately, making the police handle her somewhat roughly. But even so, though it was not necessarily the police's fault in how they handled her to the holding cell, what about Gotbaum's death? Was it their neglect that caused her to slip into a frenzy that resulted in her suffocation? That could be one scenario, but her husband brings about another possibility.
After being notified that his wife was being arrested at Sky Harbor, Mr. Gotbaum told the operator that "She is suicidal". The operator was unable to reach the security, and it is still unclear as to whether or not security received the message before they found Gotbaum dead in the holding cell. What is clear is that when they found her, her handcuffs were up around her neck.
So what is to be made of this untimely and startling death? Did Carol Gotbaum commit suicide, driven to the edge by unreseolved issues, an embarrassing arrest, and the thought of her family discovering she had been drinking on her way to a rehabilitation clinic? And if so, are the police somewhat at fault for her drastic reaction? Could they have handled her arrest in a fashion that would not have caused her to panic and resist? And if Gotbaum did not commit suicide, then whose neglect or abuse killed the mother of three children and wife of a now widower? Her cause of death remains unclear (which could lead to the instalation of cameras in airport holding cells) and Gotbaum's death remains tragic, but with so many unanswered questions it is too soon to blame any single party. Whether suicide or murder, more investigation needs to continue. Otherwise, the death of Carol Gotbaum will create more than just one victim.