No charges to be filed in Northland mall death

Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Mall security officers at Northland Center mall in Southfield who killed a Ferndale man in January while trying to restrain him will not face criminal charges.

"This is not an issue of whether these security guards were negligent," Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper said during a press conference Thursday. "It's whether they were criminally negligent."

Cooper appeared alongside Southfield Police Chief Eric Hawkins and reviewed evidence from the case, including security footage and witness cellphone video.

Cooper said there was no evidence the security guards intended to kill McKenzie Cochran when they forced him to the floor after attempting to remove him from the mall Jan. 28.

Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper, right, with Southfield Chief of Police Eric Hawkins explains how Northland Mall security guards struggled with victim McKenzie Cochran.

"The findings did not support that any officer tried to restrict his breathing by choking him." said Cooper. "There was no intent to harm. They didn't hit him. They didn't place him in a chokehold."

Cochran got into a confrontation with officers with IPC International, the private security firm contracted by Northland mall, around 5:30 p.m. Cochran is seen on security video approaching the LA Diamonds counter at the mall and telling the owner working behind the counter, "I want to kill someone today."

The owner then called mall security and, afterward, the Southfield Police Department, setting off a chain of events that ultimately led to Cochran's death from "position compression asphyxia." The medical examiner's office ruled the death an accident.

Cooper's presentation followed a timeline of events and depicts about 20 minutes of chaos and confusion as mall security attempts to restrain Cochran while he struggles on the ground, and security dispatch gives Southfield police officers the wrong direction to the store, which has been at the mall since 2007, but is not listed in any directories or online.

A few minutes after they were called, three officers with mall security approached Cochran and told him to leave the facility. When he didn't head for the exit, one of the security officers pulled out a can of pepper spray and sprayed Cochran in the face, as seen in the security footage.

The security officers then tried to restrain him and ended up tussling with him on the floor. Three officers are seen sitting on his prone body, one restraining his shoulder, another his legs and another with a knee in his back.

"It's important to note that these are not trained police officers," said Hawkins. "Police officers with an appropriate amount of training are trained to deal with someone resisting in a prone position."

Before he went limp, Cochran could be heard complaining he couldn't breathe and asking that 911 be called, according to witnesses.

Cochran's family members have filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Oakland Circuit Court seeking $800 million in damages. The lawsuit is assigned to Judge Colleen O'Brien. A pretrial hearing is set for 9 a.m. Oct. 16.

Calls to attorneys for the mall and the security firm were not immediately returned Thursday.

According to the family's attorney, Gerald Thurswell, nobody attempted to perform CPR on Cochran after he stopped breathing.

"There was a point prior to his death they should have let him up," he said.

As for the family, "They are devastated. They lost their child," he said. "Somebody needs to be held accountable."

Cooper said the sensation of not being able to breathe is a common side effect of pepper spray, but the substance doesn't restrict air flow.

"Our findings did not support that any officer tried to restrict his breathing by choking him," she said.

The medical examiner's office considered physical evidence, toxicology results and videotapes of the confrontation. Tests revealed Cochran was under the influence of marijuana at the time of the incident.

Cochran's death prompted demonstrations by community groups and has renewed focus on whether legislation is needed to require training of security guards in Michigan.

"I've been in the position Mr. Cochran was in where six officers were on my back and I was having trouble breathing," said Detroiter Ron Scott, spokesman for the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality. "You don't need a chokehold. If someone puts a knee in your back, you react involuntarily."