Minutes later Mr Richards was unconscious, his mouth covered in the foam of capsicum spray.
According to the witness statement of family friend Vincent Smethurst, one of the officers let go of Mr Richards only when he “saw he was blue”.
Paramedics were unable to revive Mr Richards and a pathologist gave his cause of death as underlying cardiovascular disease complicated by restraint.
With the death in the US of African-American George Floyd – who repeatedly stated he couldn’t breathe while a white police officer had a knee on his neck – putting a global spotlight on racial inequality, the case of Mr Richards touches upon another vulnerable group.
Mr Richards’ family hope the investigation by Coroner John Cain will lead to improvements in the way police are trained to relate to people with mental health issues.
The 48-year-old Mr Richards was never violent, according to his family. But the former St Kevin’s College student and footballer had reportedly become more withdrawn and was in an increasing state of paranoia and anxiety.
His younger brother, Robert, said Mr Richards was fearful of breaking any laws and would drive under the speed limit to avoid interaction with police.
‘Both police officers still had armlocks on him, so Danny’s arms were raised up and they were pushing him down. At that point Danny called out, “I can’t breathe.” ‘
Vincent Smethurst, family friend
He carried law books in his backpack and used their contents to underpin his avid letter writing about perceived injustices. He would padlock his petrol cap for fear of being tracked.
Mr Richards’ mother, Eileen Richards, asked for a mental health assessment at the urging of Mr Smethurst, who had been spending a lot of time with Mr Richards.
After the two-person CAT team arrived at Mr Richards’ mother’s house on the evening of June 24 the senior member called Glen Waverley police station to say he needed officers there so he could lawfully enter the property.
According to Mr Smethurst, Mr Richards was reluctant to go to a nearby mental health facility. Soon three male officers and one female arrived and confronted Mr Richards in his mother’s kitchen.
The Age has heard some of a triple zero call Mr Richards made asking for police help in relation to the presence of four armed officers in his mother’s kitchen. It was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by his brother Robert.
Mr Richards sounds scared but not aggressive. He can be heard complying with a request to hand over his backpack.
“It’s kind of bitterly ironic that Danny called police to request help,” his brother said.
By this stage, Mr Richards’ mother had been ushered outside. But Mr Smethurst went back into the kitchen.
“Danny was facing the kitchen bench and had both of his arms locked straight on a 45-degree angle above his head behind him,” his statement recounts.
“There was one male officer almost on his knees who had Danny in a headlock and he was on Danny’s left side.
“Danny then bent over towards the kitchen bench and was slipping out of the headlock. I remember looking at the officer with glasses and he was just laying in kicks to the back of Danny’s leg … I do remember calling out to Danny, ‘Don’t fight it,’ not that he was fighting.
“I remember he slipped out of the headlock and they started to swing him around towards the open area of the floor. Both police officers still had armlocks on him, so Danny’s arms were raised up and they were pushing him down. At that point Danny called out, ‘I can’t breathe’.”
Mr Smethurst then said he was told to get out. Mrs Richards said she heard “three terrible thumps”.
“I had this most dreadful sixth sense about it all but I couldn’t do anything about it,” she said.
Moments later, paramedics were also inside the house and more police units arrived. Mr Richards was unconscious and efforts were under way to revive him. His face was covered by a foam that was later confirmed as capsicum spray. The first ambulance to arrive did not carry a defibrillator.
Mr Smethurst said he overheard a paramedic asking police how the situation became so serious and that one officer replied: “I let go when I looked and saw that he was blue.”
Mr Richards could not be revived and the next police to arrive were from the homicide squad, led by veteran detective Sol Solomon.
A spokeswoman for the State Coroner said Mr Richards’ death would be subject to an extensive inquest because it was a death in custody. Victoria Police declined to comment, citing the coronial inquiry.
The attending officers reported to the pathologist that Mr Richards had violently resisted their attempts to restrain him and that the use of physical and chemical restraint was required.
His family and Mr Smethurst dispute this. The family’s lawyer, Jeremy King from law firm Robinson Gill, said Mr Richards’ case should also be examined by the royal commission into mental health.
Neither Mrs Richards nor her son wanted to draw any attention to Mr Richards’ death until the George Floyd footage emerged.
“Danny was from another vulnerable part of our community and we just felt that maybe by speaking out now some good may come from a terrible situation,” Robert Richards said.
“We must uncover the truth of what happened while my brother was in police custody.”
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Richard Baker is a multi-award winning investigative reporter for The Age.