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Police say Taser use was justified, others say it violated policy

Saturday, July 26, 2008 | 7:02 p.m. CDT; updated 7:26 p.m. CST, Friday, February 19, 2010

COLUMBIA - Police said their use of a Taser on a man threatening to throw himself from an overpass during a 90-minute-long standoff Friday was necessary and met their policies for the device's use. However, one group that has expressed opposition to the Columbia Police Department's Taser use in the past said officers violated the department's policies during the standoff.

Columbia Police Capt. Zim Schwartze said in a news conference Friday that police abided by their policy when they used a Taser to prevent 45-year-old Phillip Lee McDuffy of Columbia from harming himself.

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

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.

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

Grass Roots Organizing leader Mary Hussmann disagreed with Schwartze's interpretation of the department's Taser policy. She said the department's use of Tasers on Friday violated its policies because McDuffy was not in a safe position when shot with a Taser for the second time.

"Why is there a regulation if it isn't going to be followed?" she said.

At a July 7 City Council meeting, members of GRO criticized police use of the devices. At the meeting, GRO leader Edward Berg asked the council to reconsider authorizing the police department to buy 40 Tasers with grant money from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Berg and five other members of GRO expressed their concern over that City Council decision in a letter to the editor published in the Missourian on June 30. They argued that the police department does not properly regulate Taser use.

At the news conference, Schwartze recounted the details of the incident.

Sgt. Dan Beckman first shot McDuffy with the Taser while he was near the end of the overpass, however, one of the weapon's barbs missed, and McDuffy was not incapacitated. Holding on to 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. McDuffy collapsed to the edge of the overpass where he grabbed on to the fence before falling about 15 feet to the embankment below. McDuffy landed on his right side and broke both arms, his jaw and suffered an orbital fracture, Schwartze said.

At 4:50 p.m. Saturday, he was in serious condition at University Hospital.

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.

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 Interstate 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, she said, and that he alternated between cooperating and 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 the 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."

Lauren Titterington contributed to this report.

 


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