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Posted 8/26/11


Tasers are useful.  But they’re not risk-free, and over-reliance is a problem.

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  During the early morning hours of Saturday, August 6, University of Cincinnati campus police were summoned to a fight in a residence hall.   That’s where they ran into Everett Howard.  The youth, who seemed to be in an “altered mental state,” advanced on the cops fists balled, and when he refused to stop they zapped him with a Taser, according to news reports only once.  Howard collapsed.  Paramedics tried to revive him but without success.

     Howard, 18, an honors high school student, was enrolled in a college-prep program.  Oddly, he had apparently been Tasered before, in 2010, in an incident whose details haven’t been disclosed.

     Two hours later and about 500 miles away police in Kaukauna, Wisconsin responded to reports of someone screaming for help.  When officers arrived they observed a naked man running across a bridge, yelling that he was dead and covered with snakes.

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     Officers realized that they had a mental case and summoned an ambulance.  But as they approached, the man ran off.  To stop him they fired a Taser (how many times is unknown.)  Gregory Kralovetz, 50, collapsed and died.  Authorities surmise that he had been in a state of excited delirium brought on by drug intoxication, which is consistent with the fact that he had two convictions for possessing cocaine.

     A few hours later and about 900 miles away paramedics in Manassas, Virginia responded to a 911 call by a woman whose brother-in-law was supposedly having a heart attack.   The patient, Debro Wilkerson, 29, fought off firefighters, so police were called.  Wilkerson, who said he was on heroin and PCP, then repeatedly attacked the cops.  He wound up getting zapped as many as three times before collapsing.  He never came to.

     So far there’s no conclusive proof that Tasers kill.  Deaths following the use of CEDs are infrequent, and when they happen police usually attribute them to other factors, such as “excited delirium” and drug intoxication.  Proponents of the Taser are also quick to point out that research studies, including the NIJ report mentioned above, conclude that CEDs (also called ECWs, for “electronic control weapon”) prevent injuries to cops and citizens alike.

     Even so, there’s no denying the mounting number of Taser-associated fatalities.  It’s for this reason that the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and NIJ have recommended, among other things, that dosage be strictly limited.  PERF has also identified categories of persons who are at special risk:

    Some populations currently believed to be at a heightened risk for serious injury or death following an ECW application include pregnant women, elderly persons, young children, visibly frail persons or persons with a slight build, persons with known heart conditions, persons in medical/mental crisis, and persons under the influence of drugs (prescription and illegal) or alcohol.  Personnel should be trained about the medical complications that may occur after ECW use and should be made aware that certain individuals, such as those in a state of excited delirium, may be at a heightened risk for serious injury or death when subjected to ECW application or other uses of force to subdue them.

     NIJ’s authors seem more favorably disposed to CEDs, concluding, perhaps a bit obstinately, that “the medical research to date does not confirm such claims [of causing fatalities].”  However, a close reading of their literature review suggests that the devices can indeed be dangerous:

    While the above review suggests CEDs are relatively safe when used on healthy at-rest and physiologically stressed subjects, medical researchers caution that CEDs are not risk free (National Institute of Justice, 2008; Vilke & Chan, 2007).  Strote & Hutson (2008), for example, point out that CEDs may cause physiologic and metabolic changes that are clinically insignificant in healthy individuals but that could be harmful or even life-threatening in at-risk populations (e.g., obese subjects with heart disease and/or intoxicated on drugs who struggle with police).

     Officers who lack CEDs have limited recourse when dealing with combative citizens:  their hands, a club, and OC (pepper) spray.  In the real world these are tricky to deploy and require getting in close.  OC spray blows back.  Whacking someone with a baton can lead to a fight, which is particularly risky for cops working alone.  (Forty were killed with their own sidearms between 2000-2009.)  It’s no wonder that some officers might feel compelled to go for the  gun, and the sooner the better.  Consider two notable incidents last year, when cops without Tasers wound up shooting and killing knife-wielding drunks in Los Angeles and Seattle, provoking days of serious disturbances in the former and a DOJ “patterns and practices” investigation in the latter (that officer was also fired.)

     CEDs can save lives.  To all but their most stalwart boosters it’s obvious that they can also kill.  For examples one need look no further than the deaths mentioned above, of Darryl Turner and Robert Heston, brought up last week, and, more recently, of Kelly Thomas, a homeless and mentally ill California man whose July 5th. killing precipitated a political crisis in the city that hosts your blogger’s university campus.

     What to do?

     One could restrict Tasers to situations that would normally merit using lethal force.  If some should result in a citizen’s death one could argue that they would have likely been killed anyway.  Of course, whether cops should be encouraged to risk their own well-being in such cases is a matter of controversy.  At this writing a report has come in of an LAPD officer who was struck with a sharp cane when he and a partner tried to use a Taser to subdue “a screaming man.”  The cop’s injuries were minor; the suspect was shot dead.

     There is no question that in sheer numbers the much greater usefulness of Tasers lies in helping resolve the many lesser physical confrontations that can nonetheless result in serious injury to citizens or police.  Paradoxically, many or most of these episodes involve substance abusers, the mentally ill, and others who may be especially sensitive to the effects of CEDs.  Obviously, that can make the calculus of costs and benefits quite complex.

     So if Tasers are to be used in such cases, PERF’s dosage recommendations seem very much in order.  Officers need to train so that only one deploys the tool and that overall exposure doesn’t exceed fifteen seconds.  Along these lines it’s important to note that some of the newer CEDs emit power as long as the trigger is depressed, requiring users to exercise exceptional self-control to deliver no more than the recommended dosage.  (Taser International has resumed marketing the old type, which cycle for five seconds with each trigger pull.)

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     Not every encounter with an unruly citizen merits deploying a Taser.  NIJ’s authors warn that for some cops CEDs have become the proverbial hammer, and every threat the nail:

    We noted above that CEDs can be used too much and too often.  A critical research question focuses on the over-reliance of the CED.   During our interviews with officers and trainers, we heard comments that hinted at a “lazy cop syndrome.”  That is, some police officers may turn to a CED too early in an encounter and may rely on a CED rather the officer’s skills in conflict resolution or even necessary hands-on applications.

     If some officers turn to CEDs because they’re insufficiently skilled in “hands-on applications” we should work on improving those.  Cops who can take down a suspect the old-fashioned way, by tackling him and slapping on the cuffs, are less likely to abuse the Taser.  Sometimes good policing really is a contact sport.

UPDATES (scroll)

3/28/24  A major inquiry led by the Associated Press probed 1,036 instances over ten years where deaths resulted after police officers used supposedly non-lethal methods of force, ranging from prone restraint and blows to Tasers and bean-bag shotguns. Over 800 police agencies were identified; sixteen percent of the deaths occurred in one of the nation’s 20 major cities.  Methodology   Cases

11/24/23  Agreeing with a department board, the LAPD Commission recently ruled that LAPD’s repeated application of a Taser on Keenan Anderson, a mentally ill man high on drugs, was improper. Mr. Anderson later died. And three days ago, the Commission similarly ruled that LAPD officers were wrong to shoot and kill Takar Smith, a schizophrenic man who was in a kitchen, armed with a knife. Their actions were deemed unnecessary, as they could have retreated and called for a mental unit to assist. (See 6/5/23 and below update)

10/27/23  Keenan Anderson had just caused a crash when LAPD officers piled on after a foot chase. A lawsuit claims that his subsequent death, which the coroner blamed on heart disease and cocaine, was brought on by strangulation and multiple Taser strikes. Chief Michel Moore and a majority of the Police Commission agree that officers improperly applied pressure, purposely or not, to Anderson’s neck, and that contrary to policy, Taser jolts continued to be delivered even after Anderson was under control. (See above and 6/5/23 update)

10/16/23  Two years ago a large, unruly man caused a commotion inside a Catskill (NY) police station. Jason Jones refused to calm down, and in the process he doused himself with hand sanitizer. It caught fire when an officer fired a Taser, and Mr. Jones died. New York’s AG announced that the officers would not be charged, as reckless manslaughter requires proof that they purposely ignored a “substantial and unjustifiable risk”. However, the officers’ training did not address this particular danger.

9/19/23  Taser’s new Model 10 has a range of 45 feet, double the old device, and offers the ability to expel up to ten prongs - user’s choice - instead of two. To help control unruly persons and avoid using lethal force, LAPD will be furnishing 100 of the devices to each of four geographical divisions for a year-long test run. These Tasers don’t feature the “stun” mode, in which the device can be activated through direct contact, and LAPD no longer authorizes that form of use.

6/5/23  According to the L.A. Coroner, Keenan Anderson, 31, who was repeatedly Tasered by LAPD officers during a January 3rd. encounter, died “hours” later from the “effects of cardiomyopathy [heart disease] and cocaine use”. Anderson, a D.C. high-school teacher, was visiting family in L.A. when he exhibited odd and aggressive behavior in a public area. A private autopsy confirmed there was cocaine in his system but blamed officers’ restraint and Taser use for causing his death. A lawsuit is pending. (See 10/27/23 and 11/24/23 updates)

4/4/23  L.A. County’s Civilian Oversight Commission is examining a series of incidents in which L.A. County deputies used physical force and delivered repeated Taser strikes to persons in a mental crisis. Several died, leading to lawsuits and payouts up to $16.2 million. In the most recent incident the person survived, but the deputy was accused of minimizing the number of Taser strikes delivered. Prosecutors declined to file charges, as they thought the fourth strike might have been accidental. (See 3/17/22 update)

2/13/23  A Raleigh (NC) man whom police encountered at the wheel of a parked car died after being Tasered in “drive stun” mode. Officers observed an open container and marijuana in the car, then found suspected drugs. Darryl Tyree Williams, 32, resisted arrest. After being Tased once he warned “I’ve got heart problems,” but he tried to flee and was Tased again. Mr. Williams became unconscious. Officers used CPR but the ambulance was delayed and it’s thought that he died before it arrived.

1/14/23  LAPD officers on an unrelated call encountered Keenan Anderson, 31, as he was wandering about, acting and speaking strangely, and trying to enter vehicles without permission. He resisted efforts to contain him and officers took him to the ground. One deployed his Taser. Within one minute he fired two darts and used stun mode four times. Anderson died in a hospital four hours later. He reportedly had cocaine and marijuana in his system. His family has filed a legal claim, precursor to a lawsuit.

3/17/22  Called by a mother whose drug-using adult son had turned violent, L.A. sheriff’s deputies fought to control Brian Pickett. An officer fired a Taser at his chest, then held the trigger down for 29 seconds, nearly six times the normal cycle. Pickett went down and was handcuffed. Soon he went into cardiac arrest. Cause of death was listed as “effects of methamphetamine associated with probable excited delirium.” But the ruling could not “exclude the effects of the Taser” as a contributing factor. That happened in 2015. On March 16, 2022 the County settled the family’s lawsuit for $3.8 million. (See 4/4/23 update)

1/8/22  After a bar brawl a large, intoxicated man walked into a Catskill (NY) police station. Jason Jones, 29 behaved aggressively, and when officers tried to calm him he doused himself with a large quantity of hand sanitizer. Officers fired their Tasers, which caught on fire the vapor produced by the evaporation of the sanitizer’s alcohol. Mr. Jones was severely burned, and his injuries proved fatal.

11/10/21  In July 2020 Wilson (OK) police officers Brandon Dingman and Joshua Taylor applied more than fifty Taser jolts to a man who had been “screaming and running down the road.” Jared Lakey, 28 soon suffered a fatal heart attack. One year later the officers were charged with murder, and on November 5, 2021 a jury convicted both of 2nd. degree murder. They face a minimum 10-year term. Click here for bodycam videos of the encounter.

2/24/21  State grand jurors declined to charge any of the Rochester officers involved in the detention and death of Daniel Prude (see 9/3/20 entry.) This matter is being investigated as a possible Federal civil rights violation by the Department of Justice.

9/3/20  Seven Rochester, New York police officers were suspended in the March death of a 41-year old Black man they encountered as he ran naked through the streets. Forced restraint and use of a spit hood were blamed for causing Daniel T. Prude to stop breathing. A detailed autopsy listed several contributing factors, including severe heart and lung problems and acute PCP intoxication, and attributed his behavior to excited delirium.

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Piling On     Violent and Vulnerable     Routinely Chaotic     Three Shootings

An Illusory Consensus (I) (II)     Making Sausage     Policing is a Contact Sport (I)

Homeless, Mentally Ill, Dead     Be Careful     Sometimes a Drunk With a Knife

Every Cop Needs a Taser     Tasering a Youngster is Wrong, Except When It’s Not

Is it Too Easy to Zap?


Medical study on effects of Taser     Police Executive Research Forum guidelines

NIJ reports:  2010  2011  2011 Final     60 Minutes report

Website about less-than-lethal technologies     NIJ-funded study on conducted energy devices (Tasers)

Posted 8/19/11


How did the Taser’s reputation reach such a low point?

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Ten million dollars.  That’s what a Federal civil jury recently ordered Taser International to pay the family of a North Carolina grocery clerk who died after being struck in the chest with darts from a police Taser.

     On March 20, 2008 Darryl Turner, 17 got into a heated argument with his boss.  Police were called.  A store surveillance video depicts the youth (white undershirt) menacing the manager.  A police officer soon enters, extends his arm and fires a Taser.  Turner strolls by the cop and goes off camera with the darts still embedded in his chest.  He then collapsed.  It was later determined that the officer, a 15-year veteran, held down the weapon’s trigger for 37 seconds.  Due to his Taser model that generated a prolonged shock, in this instance more than seven times longer than the normal 5-second pulse.

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     Three years earlier a confrontation in Salinas, California played out to a similar conclusion.  On February 19, 2005 a 40-year old man high on meth went berserk, attacked his parents and thrashed their home.  Police arrived.  Five officers fired Tasers, shocking Robert Heston as many as twenty-five times.  His heart stopped beating for 13 minutes and he died the next day.

     According to the coroner Heston died from “multiple organ failure due to cardiac arrest due to agitated state due to methamphetamine intoxication (with the contributory conditions of left ventricular hypertrophy and dilation.  Taser application and struggle with police.)”  A consulting physician remarked that experiments on pigs suggested that CEDs were unlikely to endanger a normal human heart.  However, he thought that in this case the Taser might have contributed to Heston’s death because he ceased breathing moments after officers delivered the final shock.

     Heston’s family sued police and Taser International.  In June, 2008 a Federal jury exonerated the officers.  Taser, though, was held culpable, mostly because it had failed to warn users that it was dangerous to administer repetitive shocks.  Jurors awarded $5 million in punitive damages.  They also awarded $1 million in compensatory damages, then slashed it by 85 percent to reflect their estimate of Heston’s blame for his own demise.

     Taser petitioned the trial judge for a reversal both as to law and fact.  Four months later the judge set aside the punitive damages due to legal errors in jury instructions.  But he agreed with the jury’s factual conclusion that Tasers could under certain circumstances prove lethal.  For bringing that to light he rewarded the plaintiff’s lawyers with nearly $1.5 million in attorney’s fees.

     Taser appealed.  On May 5, 2011 the Ninth Circuit delivered a split verdict.  On the one hand it ruled that the plaintiff’s experts correctly applied the findings of prior research:

    The studies demonstrated a relationship between Taser deployments and blood acid levels that could be aggravated by additional factors at play in this case, such as the numerosity and duration of Taser deployments and the victim’s already-enhanced oxygen needs and blood-acid levels.

     On the other hand it ruled that the award of legal fees was not permissible under California law.  It reasoned that plaintiff lawyers, who took the case on contingency, didn’t do it as a public service but in hopes of earning a big payoff, which for various reasons didn’t materialize.

     Until recently lawyers who took on the Taser had only the Heston case in their corner.  Given the qualified nature of the coroner’s report and a non-precedental Ninth Circuit opinion, they must have been overjoyed by the multi-million dollar verdict in Turner.  Although it hasn’t been tested in appeals – after all, there is a chance it could be reversed – its autopsy findings seem compelling.  According to the medical examiner the youth had no relevant preexisting condition, so the “acute ventricular dysrhythmia and ventricular fibrillation” that led to his death must have been caused at least in part by the Taser:

    This lethal disturbance in the heart rhythm was precipitated by the agitated state and associated stress as well as the use of the conducted energy weapon (Taser) designed for incapacitation through electro-muscular disruption.

     As one might expect, Taser International vehemently disagrees.  Its lawyers offered evidence that Turner had a preexisting heart condition.  They also insisted that the National Institute of Justice had absolved the Taser from culpability for deaths following its use.

     NIJ has issued two reports on the Taser.  In June 2008 it released a brief summary entitled “Study of Deaths Following Electro Muscular Disruption: Interim Report.”  It’s loaded with qualifications.  For example, after reviewing coroner reports and relevant medical studies, the authors found no “conclusive medical evidence” that CEDs present a “high risk” of death or serious injury:

    There is currently no medical evidence that CEDs pose a significant risk for induced cardiac dysrhythmia when deployed reasonably.  Research suggests that factors such as thin stature and dart placement in the chest may lower the safety margin for cardiac dysrhytmia.  There is no medical evidence to suggest that exposure to a CED produces sufficient metabolic or physiologic effects to produce abnormal cardia rhythms
    in normal, healthy adults.  [Emphasis added]

     Tasers were neither endorsed nor ruled out.  Law enforcement agencies were simply advised that, in the best tradition of double negatives, they “need not refrain from deploying” CEDs as long as they are used in compliance with nationally accepted standards.

     NIJ didn’t offer any.  But the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) did.  Its 2005 guidelines for Taser use endorse a single, five-second cycle, then a pause and re-evaluation before applying additional cycles, their number and duration to be determined by agency policy.  (PERF’s revised guidelines, issued this year, recommends no more than 15 seconds total exposure, whether in one cycle or three.  That’s far less that what Turner and Heston got.)

     In July 2010 NIJ released “A Multi-Method Evaluation of Police Use of Force Outcomes: Final Report.”  Its main conclusion was that CEDs were safe when properly used.  Data was collected on 25,000 uses of force by twelve law enforcement agencies.  Incidents were categorized by type of force (physical, OC/pepper spray, CED) and injuries (suspects, cops.)  In brief, the results indicate that injuries to suspects were much less likely when the force used was OC spray or CED.  Injuries to officers were not associated with CEDs, and were more likely when OC was deployed.

     The authors also examined experimental evidence of the effects of CEDs on pigs and humans.   Standard five-second bursts harmed neither animals or people.  Some pigs experienced ventricular fibrillation (VF) when exposed to shocks of unusually high output or long duration (two 40-second applications).  No significant effects were detected when humans were shocked for 15 seconds, either in one burst or in three 5-second bursts.  Twenty-second exposures produced higher heart rates in humans but there was no evidence of VF or changes in blood chemistry.  For ethical reasons humans have not been tested at exposures such as what Turner and Heston experienced.

     Still, CED-related deaths are infrequent, and when they occur other factors such as heart disease, dangerous drugs and positional asphyxia are nearly always present.  Given what little is known, the report’s authors surmised that the physiologic and metabolic effects of CEDs, while innocuous for the healthy, could prove fatal, say, for an obese drug user or heart patient who struggles with police, particularly when prolonged or repeat shocks are administered.  For this reason they recommend the same as PERF, a single, five-second cycle, followed by a pause, and no more than 15 seconds total exposure.

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     Darryl Turner’s $10 million award was announced on July 19, 2011.  On the same day Charlotte city fathers closed ranks in support of CEDs.  “It is still a very effective, non-lethal force to control a situation,” said City Attorney Mac Mc Carley.  As far as he was concerned, it would be business as usual.

     But not for long.  On the very next day, July 20, a Charlotte cop zapped a man who was beating and choking a woman at a transit terminal.  The suspect collapsed.  He was pronounced dead an hour later.  Charlotte promptly took all Tasers out of service, to test them for safety and give the city time to review policies on their use.

     And, one supposes, to ponder whether it can risk another eight-figure verdict.

     Next week we’ll examine a few more examples, consider how and why cops use CEDs, and make suggestions to help assure that this vital tool is properly used.  And rest assured, we’ll clarify what the title of this post really means.  Stay tuned!


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Violent and Vulnerable     Three (In?)explicable Shootings     An Illusory Consensus (I) (II)

Policing is a Contact Sport II

Posted 8/5/11


Officers may have beat a troubled man to death.  But we all share in the blame.

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Common sense would dictate that a 37-year old homeless schizophrenic who is off his meds and has an assaultive history shouldn’t be on the streets.  But common sense doesn’t count when it comes to public policy.  Indeed, vagrants  with mental health issues have become such a commonplace aspect of city life that we seldom give them much thought.  That is, until one of them dies at the hands of the police.

     We’ve repeatedly blogged about such things (see “Related Posts,” below.)  This time the dead guy is 37-year old Kelly Thomas.  He was from Fullerton, California, a solid middle-class community in conservative Orange County, where his father once served as a deputy sheriff.  Described as a “bright, loving kid,” Thomas was stricken with the dreaded disease in his early twenties.  He then began amassing a string of arrests, the most serious resulting in a conviction for assault with a deadly weapon.

     Thomas’ nomadic lifestyle came to an abrupt end on the night of July 5, 2011.  That’s when he encountered two Fullerton police officers who were investigating a report that someone was breaking into parked cars.  When they tried to look into his backpack he ran off.

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     Deinstitutionalization, a movement that dates back to the 1950s, sought to revolutionize care of the mentally ill by treating them in community settings rather than isolated hospitals.  In practice, however, the money saved by closing institutions proved far less than what was necessary to fund effective local models.  Legions of mentally ill wound up homeless or in jail.  And that’s where things stand today.

     States tried to close the gap.  In 2004 California passed the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA,) levying a special tax on high-earners to pay for programs and clinics.  But earlier this year, as the general fund sank hopelessly into the red, a whopping $861 million of MHSA money got siphoned off to pay for mandated services.  Mental health advocates screamed foul.   Their complaints were mostly ignored.  Really, it’s hard to wield much influence when one’s constituency spends much of its waking time digging through trash cans looking for its next meal.

     It’s not just a lack of funding.  Deinstitutionalization emphasized the liberty interests of the mentally ill.  Over time the “threat to oneself or others” standard became so strictly interpreted that, excepting sex offenders, involuntary commitment has largely become a thing of the past.  For an example look no further than Thomas.  Off his meds for years, he was unwelcome at home, where his bizarre and threatening behavior – he once grabbed his mother by the neck and wouldn’t let go – led his parents to call police.  They got a restraining order and tried to get their son committed.  But the law said no.

     Legal constraints and scarce resources mean that lots of unstable characters wind up roaming the streets, whether they want to or not.  Some who knew Thomas say that he was a “free spirit” and homeless “by choice.”  Maybe so.  In any case, his unruliness, criminal history and reluctance to take meds made him an unappealing client for residential shelters and job-training programs, which have enough of a problem as it is.  So for nearly two decades Kelly Thomas was everyone’s problem.  Meaning, of course, no one’s.

     “There seems to be a general sense of outrage and fear.”  That’s how Fullerton city councilmember Bruce Whitaker described the reaction to Thomas’ death.  Now under investigation by the D.A. and, separately, the FBI, the tragic encounter has led to a blizzard of news articles, e-mails and blog posts, as well as a large (and by Fullerton standards, completely uncharacteristic) protest outside the city’s normally placid police headquarters.

     Six officers were ultimately involved.  One was initially placed on paid leave, while the others remained on duty although not on patrol.  As the outcry intensified – one councilmember went so far as to ask the chief to resign – the other five were also sent home.  Presently the official line is that Thomas, who was reasonably thought to be prowling cars, put up a fierce struggle and officers responded appropriately.  (Claims that one suffered broken bones have been amended to say he was bruised.)  Bystanders, though, paint a dramatically different picture, of a bunch of aggressive cops who dragged a helpless man to the ground, slammed his head on the pavement, beat him with flashlights and repeatedly zapped him with a Taser.

     Where the truth lies is presently impossible to say.  Initial indications, though, aren’t favorable for the cops.  A transit security video captured distressed passengers conveying what they just saw to a bus driver.  “The cops are kicking this poor guy over there. All these cops,” said one.  “He’s almost halfway dead, they killed him,” said another.  Several witnesses took their own videos.  As a stun gun clicks in the background one says, “they’ve Tased him five times already, that’s enough!”  Another calls police “Freaking ruthless...I don’t know why they don’t just put cuffs on him and call it a night, instead of hitting him.”

     Thomas died five days later.  Although the cause of death is as yet undetermined, his father released a photograph apparently taken as Thomas lay dying in a hospital bed.  It’s a grisly sight.

     Police officers frequently deal with the homeless and mentally ill, and by all accounts resolve most encounters peacefully.  Naturally, it’s the others that draw public attention.  In an episode last March, LAPD gang officers shot and killed a young man who was walking the streets late at night.  Instead of stopping as ordered he approached the cops and made a move they interpreted as going for a gun.  It turned out that the youth was unarmed.  And autistic.

     Most civilians voluntarily comply with police.  However, those who are cognitively impaired don’t realize that not following directions or, even worse, resisting can provoke a catastrophic response.  It’s for such reasons that police academies and progressive agencies offer specialized training for identifying and dealing with the mentally ill.  It goes without saying that regular instruction in this area is crucial.

     Still, in the uncertainty and confusion of the streets it’s not always obvious when a citizen is “different.”  Neither are all cops alike.  Some rattle easily.  Others may be quick to anger, or may not be willing to accept more than a smidgen of risk.  Officers often interpret situations differently.  When they patrol singly, as in Fullerton, coordinating their response is particularly challenging.  Techniques such as “swarming” can minimize the amount of force that’s needed to subdue an unruly person.  But successfully applying such tactics in the hurly-burly of the real world calls for frequent hands-on training, probably much more than most departments provide.

     A lawyer who works for police unions has come out in the officers’ defense and rebutted the most inflammatory allegations; for example, that cops struck Thomas with flashlights.  “Unfortunately,” he said, “public perception of officers trying to control a combative, resistive suspect rarely conforms to those officers’ training, experience, what those officers were experiencing at the time or reality.  This seems to be a case in point.”

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     On the other hand, an anonymous source told a local radio station that something far more sinister may have taken place.  In an on-air interview, a self-described Fullerton PD insider said that police managers had each of the involved officers repeatedly rewrite their accounts of what happened, by implication not to make them more accurate but less.  He also spoke of a live video feed from the scene, visible at dispatch and the watch commander’s office, that clearly depicts an officer striking Thomas with the butt of the Taser and drop-kicking him in the throat.  On the next day that same cop supposedly bragged about delivering a beating.  His comments weren’t well received by other officers, who already shunned their colleague over past incidents of brutality.

     If the caller’s account is accurate, the good news is that there was no concerted effort to beat up Thomas.  Only one or two cops may have gone overboard.  That’s consistent with our impression of an undisciplined, uncoordinated response, with each officer essentially acting as a Lone Ranger.  The bad news is that officer reports may have been coordinated, thus enmeshing superiors as well.  If there really was an attempt at a cover-up Fullerton PD may have a far more serious and deep-rooted problem than a couple out-of-control cops.

UPDATES (scroll)

4/10/23  California’s move into deinstitutionalization came in 1967 with passage of the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which set a high bar for the detention and involuntary treatment of the mentally ill. Its alleged failure to provide due care is addressed by new legislation that would broaden “gravely disabled” to include persons with a mental or substance abuse disorder that impairs their safety and well-being. However, it’s drawn opposition from advocacy groups and its prospects are uncertain. Senate Bill 43

12/17/22  Responding to a 9-1-1 call, two Bay St. Louis, Mississippi police officers met with a local veterinarian at her car outside the motel where she was staying with her 8-year old daughter. She was distraught and said she was being followed. After speaking with with Amy Anderson, 43 about half an hour officers decided to call child protective services. Ms. Anderson began loading her car to leave. She then pulled a gun and started firing. Officer Branden Estorffe, 23, and Sgt. Steven Robin, 34, were fatally wounded. Ms. Anderson was killed by return fire.

12/15/22  Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg unveiled a $9 million initiative directed at homeless persons, including low-level criminal accused, with behavioral issues. Three dozen social workers will reach out to homeless persons in impacted areas of the city, help them get food and housing, and connect them with mental health care. Similar services will be provided to persons who are arraigned for less-serious crimes and slated for release.

12/12/22  New York City’s plan to have cops detain mentally-ill persons who seem to pose a danger to themselves will be challenged by a shortage of psychiatric beds, as “hundreds” were reassigned for use by COVID patients. New York State has promised additional psychiatric beds, and Mayor Eric Adams, a former NYPD Captain, promises that all patients whom officers bring in will get one.

12/8/22  In a New York Times op-ed a fire department paramedic criticizes Mayor Eric Adams’ directive to involuntarily hospitalize mentally ill persons who only pose a risk to themselves. Lt. Anthony Almojera insists that the resources, from hospital beds to medical personnel and officers able to carry out the demanding task, simply don’t exist. Instead, Lt. Almojera, who’s written a book about the problem, urges major investments in “social services, housing and mental health care.”

11/30/22  During his campaign for office, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a former police Captain, emphasized his commitment to clearing homeless camps. He has now directed police officers and mental health workers to involuntarily hospitalize persons who appear to be seriously mentally ill and pose a risk of harm to themselves. Those steps, which are authorized by State law, go beyond past practice, which required there be a threat to others. But the city’s progressive voices warn this move will cause harm.

8/5/22  With crime and “quality of life” violations still higher than pre-pandemic, BART, San Francisco’s transit system, uses uniformed civilian “Transit Ambassadors” and “Crisis Intervention Specialists” to conduct “welfare contacts” with homeless persons, the mentally ill and riders suffering from drug overdoses. They work in teams and with transit police to tamp down “quality of life” issues. While they’re said to be effective, their numbers are few, and one rider says he hardly ever sees them. BART website

6/27/22  A Washington Post examination of its national database of police shootings reveals 178 instances during 2019-2021 in which officers shot and killed persons in distress whom they had been called to assist. In a 2020 episode, San Antonio (Tx) deputies visited a combat veteran three times in two days. Their last encounter ended tragically when the disturbed man, who was wearing a holstered gun, engaged the deputies in a fight.

5/21/22  LAPD 77th. Street Division’s “alternatives to incarceration” offers addicts, homeless and the mentally ill treatment and housing instead of jail. But most decline to participate for the required 3-6 month period. LAPD’s officer in charge says that arrestees know they will be released pending trial, and prefer that to obeying the program’s rules. “The court’s zero-bail practice is wreaking havoc on this program.” Homeless persons also want privacy, which is impossible in a communal shelter. But a citywide diversion program for juveniles, which offers mentoring and tutoring, is far more popular.

4/20/22  A homeless New York City man who shoved a commuter into an approaching subway train in January was declared unfit to stand trial for her murder. Martial Simon, 61, a long-time schizophrenic, will stay locked up in a psychiatric ward. Meanwhile, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan for a CARE Court system that would accept referrals from family members and others about persons with severe mental health issues is being opposed by civil libertarians, who call it “legally misguided and immoral.”

3/31/22  A count of the estimated 50,000 homeless in New York City revealed that all but 2,400 lived in shelters. Of the unhoused, about equal numbers slept on the streets and in the subways. Getting them into a shelter is no simple task. A big reason, according to advocates, is that typical dormitory arrangements lack privacy. “Private rooms and permanent housing. That’s what people want.” In a recent period the city cleared 239 street encampments. Five residents agreed to move in to a shelter.

10/15/20  A member’s view that “calling the police on George Floyd about an alleged counterfeit $20 bill ended his life" heped propel the L.A. City Council to unanimously pass a proposal to create unarmed civilian mental health teams that would respond to “nonviolent” 911 calls instead of police. According to the council’s President, the move would “save lives” and free up officers to handle violent crime. That overall approach, according to CNN, has found favor elsewhere in situations where no violence or crime are involved.

8/16/19  An older person living in rural California texted his sister that he was about to commit suicide and asked that police come claim his body. Frightened, she called the local sheriff. But the agency refused to respond because it could wind up a “suicide by cop.” That approach, to avoid aggravating non-criminal situations, has been gaining traction. And yes, the man killed himself.

1/31/19  In 1995, as part of deinstitutionalization, Oregon closed a state mental hospital, and its funding was supposed to go to local programs. According to a County official and E.R. doctor, it didn’t happen. “People were let out of the institutions, but there wasn’t anything to catch them.”

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Sometimes a Drunk is Just That     Every Cop Needs a Taser     Making Time     When Cops Kill

Assisted Suicide is Not Police Work!


PERF: Police Response to Homelessness      Crisis Intervention Team International

Milwaukee Journal: Series on treating the mentally ill     Legal standards for compelled treatment

Posted 1/18/11


Just how intrusive should patrol be?

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  It’s noon on Martin Luther King day, January 17, 2011.  While on routine patrol you observe a man sleeping on the sidewalk of a commercial park.*  He’s lying in front of offices that are closed for the holiday.  A Papa John’s pizza box is next to him.  Do you: (a) wake him up, (b) call for backup, then wake him, (c) quietly check if there’s a slice left, or (d) take no action.

     Think you’ve got it?  You’ll get another chance in a minute.

     It was Sunday afternoon, December 12, 1010.  All was quiet in Belmont Shore, an upscale residential area of Long Beach, California.  Douglas Zerby, 35, was sitting on the second-floor balcony of a friend’s apartment.  As usual, he had been drinking.  For reasons that he would take to his grave he had a pistol-grip water nozzle in his hands.  Yes, the kind for a hose.

     Local residents were accustomed to Mr. Zerby’s presence and paid no attention.  Unfortunately, one who didn’t know him called the cops.  He or she described the object in Mr. Zerby’s hands as looking like “a tiny six-shooter.”     Two officers responded and took cover some distance away.  They observed an apparently intoxicated man fiddling with an object that looked like a pistol.  They called for backup, then for reasons that aren’t completely clear moved in to “contain” the suspect.  One cop was armed with a handgun and the other with a shotgun.  That’s when Mr. Zerby reportedly raised his arms and pointed the object in their direction.  Both officers fired, sending six handgun rounds and eighteen shotgun pellets, each roughly equivalent to a .38 caliber bullet, downrange.  Mr. Zerby was struck multiple times and died at the scene.  There is no indication that he and the officers spoke.

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     Mr. Zerby was the father of an 8-year old.  An alcoholic, in and out of rehab, he was by all accounts a pleasant, law-abiding person.  Police expressed deep regret but defended the officers’ actions as reasonable.  Neighbors disagreed.  So did Mr. Zerby’s surviving relatives, who hired a lawyer and plan to sue.

     During the early morning hours of Friday, January 14, 2011 LAPD responded to a disturbance in the upscale Westside community of Playa Vista.  When officers arrived they found Reginald Doucet, Jr. running around stark naked, “yelling and behaving erratically.”  A former college football player and NFL prospect, the 25-year old had been arguing with the taxi driver who brought him to his condominium.

     Officers convinced Mr. Doucet to don his underwear.  But he ran away twice when they tried to detain him.  He was at the front door of the complex when officers finally closed in.  Cornered, he began throwing punches, landing blows on both officers in the face and head.  Police say that Mr. Doucet then tried to take one of the cop’s guns.  That’s when the officer’s partner fired twice, killing him.

     Both officers were treated for injuries and released.

     One of Mr. Doucet’s neighbors was his former sports agent, Chris Ellison.  He described Mr. Doucet as “an outstanding young man who was trying to make a better life.”  Ellison said he had never seen Mr. Doucet drunk or violent.  “Were the police really getting whooped that bad that they needed to shoot him – twice?  They can’t pull out a billy club?  They can’t Tase him?”

     Ellison’s views were echoed by civil rights advocate Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who questioned why an unarmed man couldn’t be subdued without killing him.   “Is it always going to be a situation where you're going to use deadly force? Because if so, that's a problem.”  He called on the chief to revamp training.  But Paul Weber, president of the LAPD officer union, brushed the suggestion aside.  “In this case, naked or not, when Mr. Doucet tried to take an officer's gun away from him, he set in motion the chain of events that sadly led to his death.  An officer who loses his gun to a suspect loses his life.”

     Stay in the law enforcement biz long enough and you’ll come across plenty of examples of normally law-abiding persons getting shot dead by police.  Sometimes they deserve it.  Sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes, as in Mr. Zerby’s killing, officers misinterpret a gesture as a lethal threat.  Sometimes, as in Mr. Doucet’s, they feel that their own lives are at risk.

     We seldom  hear about the far more frequent (and far less newsworthy) good decisions that cops make every day.  Cops routinely accept considerable risk.  (Sometimes, as in the case of Lakewood, New Jersey officer Christopher Matlosz, they may take things too casually, with tragic consequences.)  When dealing with combative suspects most officers turn to less-than-lethal weapons such as Tasers and beanbag shotguns whenever possible.  Regrettably, some departments, possibly fearing overuse, limit their distribution to supervisors and specialized units.

     For more about such things check out the posts linked below.  But for now let’s turn to the main reason for this post.  As readers probably know, “first, do no harm” is the core principle of medical ethics.  Physicians are taught that before intervening they must weigh potential harm against potential benefits.

     Primum non nocere would also seem like a good rule for cops to follow.  But decades of bombardment by strategies such as “broken windows” and “community policing” have left police feeling as though they must take decisive action not just in cases of serious crime, but whenever things seem amiss.  It’s more intrusion, not less.  That may be a mistake.  As we emphasized in “Making Time,” the police workplace is hopelessly unpredictable.  Cops seldom have complete information or the opportunity to collect it.  Experience also teaches that things are often not what they appear to be.  Yet officers are pressured to butt in anyway.  After all, 911 means “emergency,” right?

     Lacking verifiable details it’s hard for outsiders to speculate what officers might have done to avoid killing Mr. Zerby and Mr. Doucet.  However, we can urge that when no serious crime has occurred, bias be shifted in the direction of restraint.  As it turns out, Mr. Zerby could have been observed indefinitely.  (A Federal civil jury clearly agreed. On April 4, 2013 it awarded his survivors $6.5 million.) Mr. Doucet presented a different problem.  But every cop knows that without a less-than-lethal weapon (and sometimes even with it) it can take several officers to restrain a large, uncooperative man without seriously hurting either the suspect or themselves.  Mr. Doucet had not committed a serious crime.  It’s likely that he, too, could have been watched from a safe distance until additional officers arrived.

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     It feels odd to be writing such an obvious prescription in the twenty-first century.  Let’s hope that another blogger doesn’t feel the need to repeat it in the twenty-second.

     Oh, yes, go back to the top and retake the quiz  (answers below.)


8/16/19  An older person living in rural California texted his sister that he was about to commit suicide and asked that police come claim his body. Frightened, she called the local sheriff. But the agency refused to respond because it could wind up a “suicide by cop.” That approach, to avoid aggravating non-criminal situations, has been gaining traction. And yes, the man killed himself.

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* Real story, except that no cop was involved

Quiz answer:  (d).  If you picked (a) or (b) read the post again; if (c), check out our Conduct and Ethics pages


Regulate. Don’t Obfuscate!    When Must Cops Shoot? (II)    RIP Proactive Policing?    White on Black

Black on Black     Violent and Vulnerable     A Workplace Without Pity     Cops Aren’t Free Agents

There’s No “Pretending” a Gun     Routinely Chaotic     An Illusory Consensus (I) (II)   A Stitch in Time

Is it Always About Race?    Good Guy (I)  (II)     De-escalation    Amateur Hour    A Very Hot Summer

A Dead Marine     A Delicate Balance     Homeless, Mentally Ill, Dead     Sometimes a Drunk

Every Cop Needs a Taser     Making Time     It’s Now L.A.’s Problem     The Chase is On

To Err is Human     When Cops Kill (I) (II)     RIP Community Policing

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