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Police captain explains use of Taser on suicidal man

Friday, July 25, 2008 | 9:16 p.m. CDT; updated 7:26 p.m. CST, Friday, February 19, 2010

 Note to readers: The content in the KMIZ video linked below might be disturbing to some viewers.

COLUMBIA - Police said their use of a Taser on a man threatening to throw himself from an overpass was necessary and met their policies for Taser use.

The man, 45-year-old Phillip Lee McDuffy of Columbia, fell about 15 feet onto an embankment after police shot him with a Taser, Columbia Police Capt. Zim Schwartze said. KMIZ earlier reported that McDuffy fell about 10 feet.

At 10 a.m. Saturday, he was in critical condition at University Hospital.

Police officers negotiated with McDuffy for an hour and a half, and he twice moved toward the south end of the bridge, Schwartze said. The second time, police were prepared to use the Taser on McDuffy to prevent him from moving to the middle of the bridge a third time, she said.

Sgt. Dan Beckman first shot McDuffy with the Taser while he was near the end of the overpass to prevent him from harming himself, Schwartze said. On the initial shot, one of the weapon's barbs missed, and McDuffy was not incapacitated, Schwartze said. Holding onto the fence, McDuffy moved 20 feet back toward the center of the bridge in about five seconds, according to police accounts.

Then, Officer Sean Dutton shot McDuffy with his Taser. However, McDuffy collapsed to the edge of the overpass where he grabbed onto the fence before falling to the embankment below. McDuffy landed on his right side and broke both arms, his jaw and suffered an orbital fracture, Schwartze said. Officers could not get close enough to catch him because he previously became agitated when officers approached him, Schwartze said.

"We were trying to give him room to get back off the bridge safely," she said.

Schwartze said the second shot was warranted to keep him from reaching the higher portion of the overpass where he might jump, she said.

"This is a no-win situation for anyone," Schwartze said. "We did everything we could with the tools we had."

Footage of the incident was captured on video by KMIZ and can be viewed here.

The department's policies prohibit officers from using a Taser on a person who the officer believes "is in a position where a fall would likely cause serious injury or death."

Schwartze said when the Taser was first deployed, McDuffy was not in such a position. After the Taser was fired, it was clear to McDuffy that police intended to take him into custody, she said.

"The first Taser shot took it up to the next level," she said.

Because of McDuffy's injuries, department policy requires that the Professional Standards Unit must investigate, Schwartze said. As part of that investigation, all officers present at the scene must file a supplemental report. Schwartze also asked news organizations to provide their footage for the investigation.

Schwartze said family members called police at 10:37 a.m. and said McDuffy was in the area of Worley Street and Banks Avenue and intended to harm himself. She said officers located McDuffy on the Providence Road overpass crossing Insterstate 70 within four minutes and had crisis negotiators on the scene within 14 minutes.

Traffic on Providence Road and the interstate below were rerouted almost immediately, Schwartze said.

Family members told police that McDuffy had threatened to kill himself Thursday night, she said.

"Apparently he did try to commit suicide last night, but as his family put it, he chickened-out and went to get a weapon," Schwartze said.

During the course of the negotiations, police believed that McDuffy might still be carrying a gun and that he alternated between cooperating and becoming agitated.

Spectators gathered on both sides of the overpass during the standoff while Providence was closed. Some began yelling at McDuffy, and some people in the MG Auto Repair parking lot urged him jump.

At least one member of McDuffy's family was on the scene. A woman who identified herself to police as his daughter spoke to police negotiators, but police did not allow her or other family members to speak to the victim. When McDuffy fell, onlookers began yelling that he had jumped. The woman who said she was the man's daughter fell to her knees on the median and screamed.

Schwartze said the department's policy is to not allow people threatening suicide to speak to family members. She said studies show that allowing suicidal people to speak to family allows them to say goodbye and then proceed to kill themselves. At one point, Schwartze said, she ordered police to move spectators farther away from the scene because McDuffy could see some members of his family and was becoming agitated.

Schwartze said McDuffy had previous "negative" experiences with the Columbia Police Department. He was arrested on third-degree assault charges numerous times, as well as trespassing, resisting arrest and endangering the welfare of a child. According to Missouri Case.Net, numerous orders of protection were filed against him between 1994 and 2007.

Schwartze said McDuffy won't be charged with any crimes. She said the department isn't worried about litigation resulting from the incident.

"The officers were acting under the colors of the law to save a life," Schwartze said. "Anyone can file a lawsuit these days, but we are not concerned with that right now."

 


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