Her son was killed by police. Then she won the right to teach new cops

Loretta Prater sued the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, after her son died in a police altercation, resulting in her getting the chance to lecture cadets about his death.
Loretta Prater's son, Leslie, suffocated in 2004 when four police officers in Chattanooga, Tenn., pinned him to the ground, face down, for several minutes with his wrists handcuffed behind his back.
Loretta Prater's son, Leslie, suffocated in 2004 when four police officers in Chattanooga, Tenn., pinned him to the ground, face down, for several minutes with his wrists handcuffed behind his back.Courtesy Loretta Prater

Eight days after the death of George Floyd, the local newspaper in Minneapolis published a brief letter from a woman still grappling with her own loss at the hands of police.

“I don't have to imagine how the family of George Floyd feels. I know how it feels to have your unarmed loved one die in police custody,” Loretta Prater wrote in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “My heart breaks for the Floyd family, because they are entering a journey of pain that will remain with them forever.”

Prater’s son, Leslie, suffocated in 2004 when four police officers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, pinned him to the ground, face down, for several minutes with his wrists handcuffed behind his back. The officers had been called to the scene after Leslie was spotted in the street near his car fully nude and apparently intoxicated.

Some 16 years later, Loretta Prater is struck by the similarities between her son’s death and Floyd’s. Both were Black men who died while being restrained, facedown and unarmed, for several minutes by four officers.

But what makes her son’s case especially remarkable is what happened after he took his final breath.

Leslie Prater.Courtesy Loretta Prater

As part of a settlement with the city of Chattanooga, Prater, a university dean with deep experience in criminal justice, was granted the opportunity to teach future police cadets about Leslie’s death. She wanted to look in the eyes of the incoming officers and make them understand the pain and anguish she was feeling in the hope of preventing another senseless death.

“I tried to get in their heads,” Prater told NBC News by phone from her home in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. “So if they found themselves in this situation with someone else, maybe my face will come up and it will end differently.”

Noted civil rights attorney Barry Scheck, who represented the Prater family, said in his four decades of practicing law he couldn’t think of another example of a family member getting the chance to lecture officers in the same department responsible for a relative’s death.

“From the beginning, it was never really about the money for this family,” said Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project. “It was about preventing this from happening to other people again. That’s my kind of client.”

Prater ultimately taught three classes of cadets but hoped to continue conducting the sessions indefinitely. She even offered to do so free of charge.

But Prater says she was turned down — a snub that still bothers her, along with nearly every other aspect of her son’s case.

Leslie died in the years before cellphone cameras became ubiquitous, making him one of the untold thousands whose death at the hands of police officers has largely gone forgotten.

A talented artist and sharp dresser, Leslie was selected as the friendliest person in his senior class in high school, his mother said. He went on to take classes at the Art Institute of Atlanta but lived with drug addiction and returned to his hometown of Chattanooga.

Leslie, then 37, was looking for steady work in late 2003. On Jan. 2, 2004, he received good news: He would get the chance to interview for a job at the local Coca-Cola plant the following week.

It’s unclear how Leslie spent the afternoon after finding out about his job interview, but at 6:25 p.m. someone called 911 and reported seeing a man standing naked near his car, according to a police account.

Two officers responded and found a nude man, later identified as Leslie, in the street, the police said. Leslie refused to answer any questions and made several attempts to walk toward his car before additional officers arrived.

The officers wrestled Leslie to the ground and four of them pinned him down for several minutes, the police said. At one point, an officer used pepper spray on Leslie as they attempted to control him on the ground.

The Prater family would later claim that the officers pressed their knees into his shoulder and back causing him to struggle to breathe. After handcuffing him, they restrained him in a “hog-tie” position, his family claimed, pulling his legs over his bare buttocks while he remained face down on the ground.

The 5-foot-11, 232-pound Leslie became unresponsive and was rushed to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead.

The medical examiner declared his death a homicide. An autopsy determined that he died of positional asphyxia, meaning he was restrained in a way that cut off his ability to breathe. The autopsy listed contributing factors of acute alcohol and cocaine intoxication, as well as a heart condition and mild obesity.

Leslie’s injuries were extensive and severe: 21 fractures on 16 of his ribs; a dislocated and broken left shoulder; multiple bruises across his chest, arms and wrists; and severe bleeding from his groin consistent with blunt force impact. In his mouth, pathologists found a wad of grass, the autopsy said.

The Praters learned the results during a meeting with the medical examiner. “Tears were streaming down my face,” Loretta Prater said. “But I didn’t get up and leave because I didn’t want to miss anything.”

Before the autopsy results were made public, a Chattanooga officer investigating the death went to the hospital and observed Leslie’s battered body. The officer concluded in his investigative report that “there were no obvious traumatic injuries.”

The officers involved in Leslie’s death were back on the street a week later after serving a five-day suspension. That June, the police chief announced that no charges would be brought against the officers. An investigation by the Chattanooga Police Department and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation determined the death to be accidental.

"There was no criminal intent by the officers,” Chattanooga Police Chief Steve Parks said at a news conference, according to local reports. “Our findings are that Chattanooga Police Department officers did not knowingly jeopardize Mr. Prater's health. The officers' attempts to hold Mr. Prater down and Mr. Prater's physical condition each contributed to the outcome.”

At a family news conference, an incensed Loretta Prater said it was “unbelievable” that the officers would avoid criminal prosecution.

“All you have to do is put on a blue uniform and you can go out and kill somebody,” she told reporters at the time.

Loretta and her husband, Dwight, had moved to Missouri a couple of years earlier. She was a dean at Southeast Missouri State University where she oversaw a criminal justice program and regional police academy. Prater's ties to the police stretched back many years earlier, she said, when she worked with the Chattanooga police department in launching a Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., program.

"I had all these years of positive relationships with the police," she said.

The Prater family filed a federal police misconduct lawsuit alleging the department was negligent in its training methods and the police officers used excessive force against a man who was unarmed and in emotional distress.

The city pushed back, arguing in a court motion that the officers used appropriate methods to restrain Leslie and were unaware of his grave condition until it was too late.

The two sides eventually entered into settlement negotiations. According to Loretta Prater, the family had four key demands that they weren’t going to budge on:

  • The city must commission an external investigation of the police department.
  • The department must train officers on the dangers of positional asphyxia.
  • The department must allow the family the opportunity to meet with the officers involved in Leslie’s death.
  • The department must agree to allow Loretta Prater to teach new officers about her son’s death.

The city refused to immediately accede to all of the Praters’ demands. But that didn’t deter Loretta and her husband.

“We had all the time in the world because my child wasn’t coming back,” she said.

Ultimately, they reached an agreement. The city agreed to pay the family $1.5 million and accept their demands.

Loretta Prater’s first teaching session took place in 2007.

In a conference-style room at a police training facility, Prater said, she spoke to about 30 fresh-faced cadets about what happened to Leslie in grim detail and the pain it caused their family.

"For the most part, they were of the age of people that I was used to teaching," said Prater. "And looking at their faces, they were so young. I thought if I could get to them now before others do I could make a difference."

"That's why," she added, "I said exclusively cadets."

She handed out index cards and asked the cadets to write down why they wanted to be police officers. She impressed upon them that every person they interact with on the street has people who love them. And she presented a Powerpoint that began with photos of Leslie as a baby and ended with an image of his younger brother standing at his gravesite.

At the end of the 90-minute session, she opened the floor for questions. A silence hung over the room, Prater said. And then from a table in the back, a hand shot up that belonged to a towering white man.

Prater braced herself. “I thought maybe he was going to come down hard on me,” she said.

But the man didn’t want to talk about her or the session. He said he knew Leslie. They had gone to high school together and were friendly.

Even some 13 years later, Prater said she still remembers what he said next. “Leslie was the nicest person you had ever wanted to meet,” he said, according to Prater’s recollection. “I was so shocked when I heard what happened to him because he wouldn’t hurt anybody.”

Prater was struck by the amount of courage it took for the man to stand up in that room and say those things.

She went on to conduct two more sessions, driving six hours to Chattanooga from her home in Missouri. But she said that after a new police chief took over, she was denied the opportunity to continue appearing before each new class of cadets.

“I felt like I could get to some of them,” Prater said. “I was thinking I might be saving somebody’s life.”

A spokesperson for the Chattanooga Police Department didn’t return a request for comment about the end of Prater’s sessions.

As the years wore on, several prominent police killings captured the attention of the nation, many of them caught on video.

Prater said each new case plunges her into a well of grief and reminds her of Leslie. But it’s also difficult for her to come to terms with how her son’s death seems to have been forgotten.

“We don’t have the videos, but we have dead children, too,” said Prater, who published a book in 2018, “Excessive Use of Force: One Mother’s Struggle Against Police Brutality and Misconduct.”

After news of George Floyd’s death broke, Prater said she felt a particular pain watching the video of his final moments gasping for air beneath a police officer’s knee.

“When I saw that guy with his knee on the neck and the length of time he held it, it was like I was looking at my son laying there,” Prater said.

A few days after Floyd’s death, Prater sat down at her computer and began typing away. She wanted to make the point that fatal police encounters like Floyd’s have been going on for years.

“I feel they’ve silenced Leslie’s voice, and I have an obligation to speak out as long as mine is not silenced,” she said.

In her letter to the newspaper, she described her pain for Floyd’s family. She praised the mayor for firing the four officers who were involved. At the end, she emphasized the importance of police departments hiring the right people and giving them the proper training.

“Now, the next challenge is to seek justice,” she wrote. “It is not over yet.”