For family of soldier who died in military police custody, questions remain
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. May 23, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — Cameron Benard was preparing for a move to Georgia, where he expected to get a fresh start and begin a new phase in his career.
The 31-year old U.S. Army sergeant, stationed at Fort Polk in Vernon Parish, had been accepted to sniper school. He only had a few days left in Louisiana. In between, he was going to visit his younger brother in Florida.
“He was just so excited,” his mother, Cristal recalled. “He was getting ready to leave.”
He never made it.
On Oct. 15, just days before he left Fort Polk, Benard, an Afghanistan veteran, was pulled over by military police on Fort Polk. He was placed under arrest under suspicion of driving under the influence.
The military police officers cuffed Benard and put him in the back of the patrol vehicle and drove him the short distance to the Fort Polk police station. At some point during the drive, the arresting officer moved Benard’s hands, which had been cuffed behind him per normal police procedure, to the front. Moments later, was able to draw a personally owned gun to his head while in the patrol vehicle, according to a copy of an Army Criminal Investigations Division report obtained by The Advocate — The Times-Picayune.
After arriving at the Fort Polk Police station, Benard got out of the car pointing the gun at himself, the report says. Attempts to deescalate were unsuccessful, and he shot himself in the parking area behind the police station, the report says. He died three days later in a hospital in New Orleans.
Procedures and investigations
Benard’s ability to get a gun and use it to shoot himself raises significant questions about the police procedures used by the officers who arrested him. Arrestees who get their hands on guns can pose significant danger not just to themselves, but to officers involved.
More broadly, Benard’s death highlights the lack of scrutiny on those who police some of the country’s most honored — and weapons-savvy — citizens. Scholarly studies and media coverage highlight the actions of local police departments, while federal agencies often act under a veil of legal secrecy, making studying them difficult.
In Benard’s case, at the very least the arresting officers failed to follow basic police procedure, said Roy Taylor, a longtime police chief and consultant who has also served in the military.
Benard should have been cuffed behind his back with his palms outward to prevent movement, he said.
“You never cuff somebody in the front unless you have a waist chain,” he said. A waist chain prevents them from doing exactly what Benard did with the gun, he said.
Police officers who take a suspect into custody are then responsible to make sure the suspect is not a threat to others or himself, Taylor said.
“Any time you take somebody into custody you do a thorough search to make sure they don’t have weapons,” he said. “Had nationally recognized police procedures been used...He would not have been able to draw the weapon and aim it and shoot it.”
Benard’s death prompted at least three separate investigations by the U.S. Army, according to a statement provided by Fort Polk Public Affairs Officer Shelby Waryas. The investigations included a line of duty investigation, which is ongoing; a death investigation and a separate “Law enforcement policy and procedure investigation.”
The Advocate/The Times-Picayune filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the results of the three investigations. As of press time, only a summary of the death investigation, has been fulfilled.
A mother’s questions
Benard’s mother, Cristal, still has questions.
“I know that I’m grieving,” Cristal Benard said from her home in Shawnee, Okla. “But there were so many things that did not make sense.”
According to the report, during the traffic stop, witnesses reported that Benard went into his vehicle and put the gun in the waistband of his pants. But why that gun was never found when he was cuffed and put in the patrol car is a mystery, Benard said.
“They never patted him down for guns or anything?” Benard wondered.
Complicating matters, Benard has received conflicting reports about the incident from various Army personnel, she said. The officer who called her from the base told her there had been a “scuffle.” But an investigator from the Army’s Criminal Investigations Division told her there had not been a scuffle.
Her son was excited about his next steps and his future in the Army, which he loved, she said.
“He was going to be a lifer,” she said.
A lack of data
The frequency of deaths or incidents while suspects are in military police custody has not been extensively studied, experts said. The data that is publicly available is included in a report published by the Department of Justice that compiles data across federal law enforcement agencies. The most recent year for which there is data is 2020.
According to that report, there have been no deaths during arrests in Army police custody, including self-inflicted deaths, since 2016, the furthest back the report is available.
Scrutiny of federal law enforcement, including the military, is harder than it often is for local or state agencies, said Ian Adams, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina.
“We don’t have great insight into the day-to-day policing at the military or federal law enforcement level,” Adams said. “As much as researchers and policy makers complain about policing data at the local level, it’s way worse at the federal level.”
Failing to catch a gun when placing a suspect under arrest is a “fairly critical mistake,” Adams noted.
An ideal mentor
Greyson Benard, Cameron’s brother and one who followed him into military service, said the loss of his brother is a devastating blow.
“He was always taking care of us,” said Greyson, who is seven years younger than his brother. “He taught me and the brothers how to swim, play soccer, go shooting.”
Those same traits that made Benard a good big brother transferred to his Army career, Greyson Benard said.
“His calling was helping people and stuff like that,” he said. Cameron loved the soldiers he commanded and they loved him, Greyson Benard said.
“They always said he was the greatest NCO they could have asked for,” he said.
Greyson thinks about this brother every single day, he said.
“It makes some music hard to listen to, some foods hard to eat, some places hard to see,” he said. “It’s not the same and I don’t think it will ever be the same.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health, suicide or substance use crisis or emotional distress, reach out 24/7 to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) by dialing or texting 988 or using chat services at suicidepreventionlifeline.org to connect to a trained crisis counselor. You can also get crisis text support via the Crisis Text Line by texting NAMI to 741741.
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