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Report finds officers' Taser use justified

Friday, September 12, 2008 | 7:51 p.m. CDT; updated 2:45 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 11, 2008

COLUMBIA — A Columbia Police Department report has found that no officers were at fault in a July incident in which Tasers were used on a man threatening to commit suicide by jumping off on an Interstate 70 overpass.

None of the officers involved will face disciplinary action.

Though it does not blame individual officers for the incident, the report does acknowledge several mistakes made in command and control decisions and communications at the scene and says the department must address the weaknesses the incident exposed.

"We didn't believe it was the fault of any individual officers," Interim Police Chief Tom Dresner said in an interview following the release of the report. "It was a combination of factors."

Released Friday morning, the report is the product of an internal investigation by the Professional Standards Unit, created in February 2008 to improve the department's policing of itself.

The report package includes a 35-page written statement written by Sgts. Joe Bernhard and Shelley Jones, a PowerPoint presentation and a number of photographs and videos. It's the first time the Police Department has released a report in a multimedia format. All officer names were redacted to protect their legal rights, according to the report.

The Police Department's use of Tasers has become a growing subject of concern for many Columbia residents. In July, the City Council approved the purchase of 40 additional Tasers for patrol officers, prompting an outcry from a number of local advocacy groups opposed to Tasers. They have asked the City Council in a resolution to reconsider its decision.

"We're not asking for any police officer to be disciplined," said Dan Viets, general counsel to the Mid-Missouri chapter of the ACLU, which is opposed to the use of Tasers. "What we are asking for is a change in policy."

The incident in question occurred on July 25, when 45-year-old Phillip Lee McDuffy was critically injured after police shot him with a Taser and he fell almost 17 feet off a pedestrian walkway over I-70 at Providence Road. McDuffy broke his jaw and both arms, and suffered an orbital fracture in the fall. He declined to speak with investigators from the Police Department following the incident, the report says.

According to the report, officers acted appropriately and their use of Tasers was justified.

"The Taser, given all the due considerations outlined in this report, and apart from it, was the best tool available to us for its stand-off instant incapacitation potential," the report states.

Standard operating guidelines allow the use of Tasers to subdue someone who is threatening himself or others with bodily harm and appears reasonably able to carry out those threats. The guidelines also permit officers to use a Taser if they think lesser force options — such as physical restraint or pepper spray — are likely to be ineffective, which was the case with McDuffy, the report states.

Though McDuffy fell from a height at which Taser use is normally prohibited, the rule did not apply in this case because McDuffy was not standing still and the first Taser was deployed when he was at a lower height, the report says.

"Individual police officers acted properly, under the totality of the circumstances of the events of that day," the report states. "Rapidly changing events, with durations measured in seconds, factored into their decision-making."

But according to the report, a significant breakdown in procedure did occur when the acting patrol commander failed to request a specialized response team.

In "Code Red Situations" — when there is a high risk of death for officers or citizens — the department must deploy a specialized unit consisting of the SWAT team and the Crisis Negotiation Team. On July 25, the department did not declare a Code Red and declined the assistance of the SWAT team.

"The lack of an experienced tactical presence at the scene affected the ability to plan for and execute a tactical intervention with contingency planning," the report states. However, the report also notes that the unit's presence could not have guaranteed a positive outcome.

The Police Department will change its policies to ensure that in the future, situations warranting Code Red designation will be declared as such, the report states.

The report also found a significant breakdown in communications at the scene of the incident. For example, several officers were not sure when or if a Taser would be deployed.

"It is clear from this investigation that the first Taser shot was a surprise to many involved," the report states. In a video released with the report, a cry of surprise can be heard, though the video does not reveal the source of the sound.

"Miscommunication was the order of the day," Dresner said. Events happened quickly, officers were spread out over a distance, and it was difficult to hear one another at such a loud location, he said.

At about 10:30 that morning, McDuffy first climbed onto the outside of protective fencing on the overpass and made his way back and forth over the interstate. According to the report, he told police, "It's over with, if I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die at my own hands," and "This is the only way out."

Police officers negotiated with him for about an hour and a half, and when he made his way toward the south end of the overpass, police decided to use their Tasers to prevent him from going back to the middle again.

Police chose to act when they did in part because the situation was putting extreme stress on both emergency services and traffic in the area, the report states. A total of 33 Columbia police officers responded to the incident, or about 20 percent of the entire force. About 6,000 vehicles were stopped or diverted on I-70, and 2,000 on Providence Road.

The Taser that incapacitated McDuffy was actually the fourth to be fired at him. Only 5.2 seconds elapsed between the first and last Taser shots, the report states. The first Taser was deployed when McDuffy was standing at the southwest corner of the bridge, only 3 feet off the ground. The strike was ineffective because only one probe struck McDuffy, according to the report.

As McDuffy moved toward the center of the overpass, which is significantly higher than at the edges, two more officers tried to deploy their Tasers and failed, most likely because they did not activate the Taser before firing. The report says this occurred because officers are not trained on quickly drawing their Tasers, since most are not used that way. Training will be updated to include how to rapidly deploy a Taser from its holster, the report states.

 


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Comments

Charles Dudley Jr September 13, 2008 | 5:05 a.m.

I read this report as all Columbia citizens should and pay close attention to page 15 and how it reads. It is clear our officers need more training,"better ways to check this tool's accountability" in the future and yes to look to begin the process of looking at the concerns of the organization Gro's stand and suggestions on this issue. I am not a hard core Gro supporter by far but they do have some great suggestions on this issue.

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