Friday, July 25, 2008

Taser Deaths Continue From Louisiana to North Carolina

Taser death ignites racial tensions

Not far from Jena, La., suspicions of a cover-up mount

By Howard Witt

At 1:28 p.m. last Jan. 17, Baron "Scooter" Pikes was a healthy
21-year-old man. By 2:07 p.m., he was dead.

What happened in the 39 minutes in between--during which Pikes was handcuffed by local police and shocked nine times with a Taser device, while reportedly pleading for mercy--is now spawning fears of a political cover-up in this backwoods Louisiana lumber town infamous for backroom dealings.

Even more ominously, because Pikes was black and the officer who repeatedly Tasered him is white, racial tensions over the case are mounting in a place that's just 40 miles from Jena, La. Jena is the site of the racially explosive prosecution of six black teenagers charged with beating a white youth that last year triggered one of the largest American civil rights demonstrations in decades. And in a bizarre coincidence, Pikes turns out to have been a first cousin of Mychal Bell, the lead defendant in the Jena 6 case.

No novelist could have invented Winnfield, a place so steeped in corruption that they built a local museum to try to sanitize it all.

Here in the birthplace of two of Louisiana's most colorful and
notorious governors--Huey and Earl Long--the police chief committed suicide three years ago after losing a close election marred by allegations of fraud and vote-buying.

Just four months later, the district attorney killed himself after allegedly skimming $200,000 from his office budget and extorting payments from criminal defendants to make their cases go away.

The current police chief is a convicted drug offender who got a pardon from Edwin Edwards, the former Louisiana governor who is serving time in federal prison for corruption convictions.

All of that tangled history is now wrapped up in the Pikes case, because Scott Nugent, the officer who Tasered him, is the well-connected son of the former police chief who killed himself--and the protégé of the current chief, who hired him onto the force.

"A lot happens in this town and it just gets swept under the rug," said Kayshon Collins, Pikes' stepmother, who has participated in several local protests over the case. "What the police did to Scooter just isn't right. They would never have Tasered a white kid like that." The official police version of what happened to Pikes on that brisk January afternoon reads like a sad but familiar story in Winnfield's local newspaper.

Nugent spotted Pikes walking along the street and attempted to arrest him on an outstanding warrant for drug possession, according to Police Chief Johnny Ray Carpenter. Pikes took off running, but another officer cornered him outside a nearby grocery store. Pikes resisted arrest and Nugent subdued him with a shock from a Taser.

Then on the way to the police station, Carpenter related to the newspaper, Pikes fell ill and told the officers he suffered from asthma and was high on crack cocaine and PCP. The officers called for an ambulance, but Pikes later died at the hospital.

Six months later, the Winnfield police are standing by that story.

Meanwhile, the Louisiana State Police are investigating the case, and no charges have been filed against Nugent or two other Winnfield police officers who assisted him in arresting Pikes, although the City Council did decide to fire Nugent from the force in May.

Winn Parish District Atty. Chris Nevils says he expects to present the case to a grand jury after he receives the results of the state police investigation.

But there is already abundant evidence contradicting the official police version of the incident.

An autopsy determined there were no drugs in Pikes' system and that he did not have asthma, according to Dr. Randolph Williams, the Winn Parish coroner.

Moreover, Pikes did not resist arrest, and he was handcuffed while lying on the ground, according to Nugent's police report of the incident. It was only after Pikes refused Nugent's command to stand up that the officer applied the first Taser shock in the middle of his back, Nugent wrote.

Several more Taser shocks followed quickly, Nugent stated, because Pikes kept falling down and refusing to get back up. Grocery shoppers who witnessed the incident later told Pikes' family that he had pleaded with Nugent: "Please, you all got me. Please don't Tase me again."

Williams said police records showed Nugent administered nine Taser shocks to Pikes over a 14-minute period. The last two jolts, delivered as police pulled Pikes from a patrol car at the police station, elicited no physical reaction because the suspect was unconscious, Williams said.

Only after Pikes was carried into the police station and slumped into a chair did police call for an ambulance. He was pronounced dead soon afterward at the local hospital.

After consulting about the case with Dr. Michael Baden, a nationally prominent forensic pathologist, Williams ruled last month that Pikes'death was a homicide. On the death certificate, he listed the cause of death as "cardiac arrest following nine 50,000-volt electroshock applications from a conductive electrical weapon."

Baden said the case "could be considered to be torture."

"God did not just call this young man home," said Williams, who has served as parish coroner for the past 33 years.

"Fourteen minutes elapsed between the first shock and the last. If somebody can tell me anything else that killed this otherwise perfectly healthy young man in 14 minutes, I'd like to know it."

Williams is no stranger to controversy in Winnfield. Back in 2004, his garage was firebombed--he suspects the attack was ordered by the former district attorney--and he says he's been shot at 19 times by people upset with the independence of his investigations. He wears a gun holstered at his waist even while sitting safely at his desk.

"This case may be the most unnecessary death I have ever had to investigate," Williams said. "[Pikes] put up no fuss, no fighting, no physical aggression. The Taser was not used to take him into custody. He just didn't respond quickly enough to the officer's commands."

Nugent, 21, declined to be interviewed for this story. But his
attorney, Phillip Terrell, said that Nugent "acted within the ambit of his training and Winnfield Police Department policies"--an opinion seconded by police spokesman Lt. Charles Curry.

Yet the official Winnfield Police Department Taser policy appears to prohibit the weapon's use against a nonviolent suspect who has already been handcuffed.

"The Taser shall only be deployed in circumstances where it is deemed reasonably necessary to control a dangerous or violent subject," the policy states. It also requires that a suspect who has been Tasered should immediately be checked out at a hospital, which did not happen in Pikes' case.

What's more, safety guidelines issued by Taser International Inc., the manufacturer of the device that is now used by more than 12,700 law enforcement and military agencies worldwide, warn officers to "minimize repeated, continuous, and/or simultaneous exposures."

Company officials, citing dozens of medical studies, insist Tasers are safe when used properly. But few of those studies examined the effect of multiple Taser applications over a short period of time. The U.S. Department of Justice, in a study released in June, concluded that "the medical risks of repeated or continuous [Taser] exposure are unknown."

In less than two years on Winnfield's 20-officer police force, police records show, Nugent ranked as the department's most aggressive Taser user. Among the recipients were a 15-year-old African-American runaway who was not charged with any crime and Pikes' father, currently serving a prison sentence for a drug offense, who was Tasered by Nugent last year, according to Kayshon Collins.

Joe Heard said his 15-year-old son was Tasered twice by Nugent last August, after Heard reported the youth as a runaway and asked the police to help find him.

"He snuck out of the house to be with a girl," Heard said. "I asked the police to bring him home, and they did, but in pieces--he was all scraped up and bruised. They told me the next time he runs, 'You know we're going to shoot him.' "

Charlotte-Mecklenburg NC - Officer suspended over Taser death

Thu, Jul. 17, 2008

Officer suspended over Taser death

Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

A Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer has been suspended for violating policy when he shocked a teen with a Taser gun for about 37 seconds, contributing to the teen's death.

Police announced Wednesday that Officer Jerry Dawson Jr. held the Taser trigger until 17-year-old Darryl Turner fell to the floor during a confrontation at a north Charlotte grocery store. The officer later shocked Turner a second time for five seconds.

Turner, who worked at the grocery store, died from cardiac arrest. The autopsy showed the teenager's heart was pumping so fast and chaotically from the stress of the confrontation and the Taser shot that it stopped pumping blood properly.

"We have deep regret and sympathy for that family. Officer Dawson also is in a great deal of pain," said Deputy Chief Ken Miller, who oversees training. "Nobody feels good about the outcome."

Prosecutors announced last week they would not charge Dawson, and found his use of force appropriate under N.C. law.

But police suspended Dawson, a 15-year veteran, for five days without pay. They released a surveillance video from the store Wednesday and more details about the March 20 confrontation.

Dawson, 39, will receive additional training on the proper use of a Taser.

His suspension follows an internal affairs investigation and a private hearing Tuesday before a review board of his supervisors, internal affairs investigators and a civilian.

"After a thorough review of the evidence, the board determined that the initial decision to discharge the Taser was within our procedures, but the prolonged use of the Taser was not," police said.

A Taser is a weapon that typically uses compressed nitrogen to shoot two tethered needle-like probes that penetrate skin and deliver an electric shock. It's designed to temporarily subdue a person.

CMPD teaches officers to pull and immediately release the Taser trigger to deliver a five-second shock. Officers may repeatedly pull the trigger in extreme circumstances when necessary to control a suspect. Holding down the trigger violates department policy.

Police said they're reviewing their Taser policies.

In 2005, after reports raised questions about Taser safety, CMPD prohibited prolonged shocks because they appeared to increase the risk for respiratory failure, Miller said.

Unlike some police departments, CMPD does not limit how many times an officer can shock a suspect, although it encourages officers to minimize their use of force.

Officer Dawson told investigators that he held down the trigger because the shock did not subdue Turner. Despite commands to stop, police said, Turner stepped toward the officer then walked past him.

"He didn't think he was getting the full energy so he held it," Miller said. "He was afraid if he undid it, Turner would be violent and possibly harm the store manager or himself."

Turner's death was the first Taser-related fatality in the CMPD's history. It happened during a three-month period earlier this year when police also shot five suspects with firearms - killing one and wounding four. Not since the fall of 1998 had police used deadly force as frequently.

Officers used Tasers about 100 times in both 2005 and 2006.

Surveillance video from the Food Lion shows Turner at the customer service desk, knocking over a display, then throwing an umbrella. Turner then moves closer to a store manager and employee, at one point raising his arm and pointing at the manager. A customer at the desk pushes her child away from the confrontation.

Officer Dawson is shown walking through the front door, and seconds later, carrying what appears to be his Taser. Dawson approaches Turner with the Taser pointed at him. Turner takes a step toward the officer, then continues to walk past him. It's unclear from the video when Turner is shocked, but police say it happened as Turner stepped toward the officer.

Turner then walks toward the front door, followed closely by Dawson, whose Taser remains attached to Turner.

Both then walk out of the camera's view.

Mecklenburg District Attorney Peter Gilchrist said Wednesday his office made the right decision in not prosecuting Dawson.

"The fact that the police department has decided he violated policies does not make the actions of the officer a criminal offense," Gilchrist said.

Turner family attorney Ken Harris disputes prosecutors' claim that the use of force was appropriate. Harris said Wednesday he's had concerns about how long Turner was shocked.

"We're happy that this information, including the videotape, has been released to the public," said Harris, who is considering a lawsuit over the death. "We look forward to a jury interpreting the videotape."

Turner's mother says her son came home for lunch on March 20 and told her he'd stolen a couple of Hot Pockets from the store. Tammy Fontenot said she told her son to return to the store and admit what he'd done.

Turner returned to work after lunch, and a supervisor told him to remove a lollipop from his mouth and tuck in his shirt. The teenager began cursing, prosecutors said.

The supervisor contacted the store manager to inform him what was happening. She told him she felt threatened and was going to call police.

Here's what police said happened then:

Dawson responded to a call around 1:15 p.m. about a disturbance at the Food Lion on Prosperity Church Road.

When Dawson arrived, he saw Turner throwing objects at the store manager and yelling. The officer also saw Turner walk toward store personnel in a threatening manner.

Dawson ordered Turner to stop. But Turner turned and started to walk toward Dawson, police said. That's when Dawson discharged his Taser.

Turner continued to walk while he was being shocked, then grabbed a small store rack and threw it across the floor.

"Officer Dawson held the trigger of the Taser down until Mr. Turner fell to the ground," the police statement said. "The continuous duration of this discharge was approximately 37 seconds."

Police said Dawson then ordered Turner to put his hands behind his back. When the teen didn't comply, Dawson discharged his Taser again, this time shocking the teen for five seconds.

Police Chief Rodney Monroe pledged in a statement Wednesday that he will release as much information as possible about such cases of public interest, as long as it doesn't interfere with an investigation or violate personnel laws.

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