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COVER STORY | Vol. 5, No. 5, February 3, 2005
(Gotcha! Crimefighters' New Toy)

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Gotcha! Crimefighters' New Toy

by Duwayne Escobedo

On the videotape, Randy Koch slouches in a chair in the Escambia County Jail intox room and looks drunk. He curses the Pensacola Police Department Officer Ray McPhail and refuses his request to take a Breathalyzer test.

Then McPhail jumps up from his seat at a desk, stands over the 42-year-old Koch and points a 50,000-volt Taser Gun directly at Koch's temple.

Koch immediately cowers back, throws his arms up in front of his head and yells, "I'm not resisting! I'm not resisting!"

Officer McPhail orders him to stand up and Koch does so on his own. McPhail then uncaps the Taser and as McPhail and Koch exit the camera into an adjacent room, McPhail is heard saying, "Oh, he's fixin' to get it."

While the camera rolls on the empty, yellow-lit room, Koch can be heard shouting, "Why are you doing this to me? I ain't done nothin'. I'm not resisting!" Next you hear a zap of electricity and Koch screaming in pain.

Not long after and right before the videotape ends, McPhail re-enters the intox room, telling another officer, "I ain't worried about that."

DEATH AND TASERS

The video obtained by the Independent News raises more questions in the national debate about the safety and police abuse of Tasers. The weapons fire barbs at a distance of up to 21 feet that deliver a jolt that is nearly 25 times that of an electric chair.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference released a report Jan. 5, "America's Taser Crisis," detailing 86 deaths involving Tasers in the United States and Canada since September 1999.

The study doesn't include the Taser involved deathJan. 8 in Pensacola of Carl Nathaniel Trotter, who allegedly attacked two people in the Crown Pointe subdivision off Lillian Highway and died after deputies subdued him with at least three shocks from Tasers.

Florida leads the nation in deaths involving Tasers with 16, including four in the past two months. Besides the rash of deaths statewide, the use of the supposedly non-lethal weapons, which are intended to incapacitate fleeing or resisting suspects, is coming under increasing public criticism with the shocking of a 6-year-old boy, a 12-year-old girl and a wheelchair-bound man.

Koch recalls that once he exited the intox room, McPhail and other officers handcuffed his hands above his head to a rail, pulled his T-shirt up and rubbed a cream on his back. Then he was tasered. The Monterey, La., man says today that he's just happy to be alive.

"I thought I was dying," says Koch, during an interview recently in the Escambia County Jail where he's serving up to 60 days for DUI. "I expected them to knock me around a little bit, not use a Taser Gun. That Taser is something. I've never felt such pain."

TASER MORATORIUM

Ellison Bennett, SCLC Pensacola chapter president, says stories like Koch's are common. The local SCLC chapter is planning a rally against Taser Guns at 10 a.m. Feb. 19 at Bethel A.M.E. Church.

"Police officers use it when they lose their temper," says Bennett, who worked closely with the Demetrius Tillman Nelson family. Nelson died after Okaloosa County sheriff's deputies shocked the 44-year-old in Destin in July.

"Officers out there are violating people's rights and they're going to keep on doing it because they know they have the law, the

badge and the State Attorney on their side," Bennett says.

The increase every year in deaths involving Tasers from 1 in 1999 to 46 in 2004, has the SCLC, Amnesty International and other human rights groups calling for a moratorium on Taser use, so that more scientific research on their safety can be conducted.

At the very least, they call for stricter standards on their use by law enforcement. Amnesty International discovered that 80 percent of the people who died in Taser incidents were unarmed and 36 percent were tasered for simply failing to comply with officers' verbal orders.

But Master Deputy Robert Powers, who's headed Escambia County Sheriff's Office Taser training since 2001, insists officers rarely abused the Tasers the 370 times they were reported being used in 2004. He calls the 700 weapons owned by the sheriff's office an effective law enforcement tool that gets used like pepper spray or a baton when a deputies' verbal instructions and hand controls go unheeded.

DEPUTY SHOCKER?

Powers bristles at the allegation that one sheriff's deputy is nicknamed "Shocker" because he uses the Taser so often.

"That's a rumor," says Powers, a 27-year veteran. "I haven't seen any real problems. I keep an eye on the Tasers. We would not let somebody get out there and go wild with it. The last thing we want is people abusing them."

One sheriff's deputy was terminated recently when he used a Taser in a domestic violence case and did not arrest anyone and failed to file a form reporting the Taser use, Power says.

Pensacola Police Chief John Mathis reports that his department has had officers "clowning" around with the about 60 Tasers it owns but he says that none have misused them on a suspect.

"If we didn't feel like they were safe, we wouldn't be using them," Mathis says.

But Pensacola attorney Robert Bleach accuses law enforcement of failing to monitor Taser use close enough. He suggests law agencies randomly download computer information stored in chips in the Tasers to see how much they've been used. The gun records the time, date and number of times the trigger was pulled.

Currently, Bleach represents a woman tasered in the back five times in a Wal-Mart parking lot after a dispute arose with an Escambia County Sheriff's deputy.

"Certainly in some situations it prevents a suspect or officer from being killed or suffering a more serious injury," says Bleach, with the Daniel M. Soloway law firm. "But it's easy to get away with using it improperly. No one randomly checks the Tasers' computer chips. If officers knew they were being watched, they would use better judgment in when to fire the weapon and when not to."

TASERS SAVE LIVES

Nevertheless, Powers points out that injuries to suspects and officers during arrests has declined by about 70 percent since the Escambia County Sheriff's Office began using them in 2000.

Jim Witt, a former police officer and consultant to more than 100 police departments across the country, supports Tasers.

"If you're worried about policeman shooting people with a gun, then this is an excellent remedy," he says. "In most instances, a suspect will be subdued. Let's face it, where is the debate going to stop? When policemen don't have anything to protect themselves?"

And the more than 4,300 law enforcement agencies in the United States and Canada that use the weapons, tout that the 50,000-volts from the Tasers are not lethal, or even cause permanent injury. They and the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company Taser International that supplies them also assert no autopsies have ever found Tasers were responsible for killing someone.

Powers points out he's shot himself four times in demonstrations during the 4-hour training Escambia deputies undergo.

"Medical reports say there are no long-term effects, they do not cause deaths, they do not cause paralysis, they cause no injuries at all," he says.

Taser International contends the device saves lives and that no medical examiner has listed Taser technology as a primary cause of death.

LETHAL FORCE?

Pensacola attorney Patrece Cashwell, though, disputes contentions about the safety of the shocks. She is representing 47-year-old Harold Fountain who still can't see after being tasered in his left eye and still bares scars on his back from the June incident, all because he refused an Escambia deputies' command to leave his porch, she says. Cashwell shows a photo of Fountain with blood dripping from his eye.

"Witnesses say they saw flames popping off of him," Cashwell says. "He was tasered eight times by one officer. They think it's just fun and games and they have a casual and cavalier attitude about the use of Tasers. Well, let them step down and Taser one of the jurors and let the jury decide how lethal they are."

During a deposition of Escambia County Sheriff's Deputy Shedrick Johnson, he admits to Cashwell that his police training taught him that the Tasers do not kill people, and, in fact, that you can shock somebody as many times as you want without any permanent injury.

However, the Security and Exchange Commission is currently investigating safety claims by Taser International.

The New York Times reported in a Jan. 8 story "the company has performed little research into the safety of its stun guns. Its primary safety studies on its most powerful weapon consist of tests on one pig in 1996 and five dogs in 1999. Some biomedical engineers have said that Tasers may cause lethal disturbances of the heart's rhythm, and in November, a research laboratory for the Air Force said more research was needed to determine how the weapons affected the heart."

More than a dozen class action lawsuits have been filed in federal court that allege the Arizona company issued false and misleading info about the safety of guns.

In fact, the SCLC cites an Arizona Republic article that indicated medical examiners in three cases involving Tasers ruled the device as a contributing factor in the death, and in two other cases the Taser could not be ruled out as a cause of death.

"At this time, Tasers' potential to save lives is less important than their unclear connection to deaths in custody, their use when lethal force would never be an option and the glaring lack of medical evidence that they are safe," says Sheila Riley, an Amnesty International spokeswoman.

THIN BLUE LINE

That news doesn't comfort Ramona Koch, who still gets upset and cries when talking about the Oct. 10 incident involving her son, Randy, who is one of her five children.

She says he's a jack-of-all-trades whose jobs have included dangerous ones, such as being a smoke jumper for the U.S. Forest Service in fighting fires, clearing power lines of branches and debris and a tree climber for a tree service company. In fact, he was in Pensacola working for a tree service after Hurricane Ivan when he was arrested.

"This just upsets me terribly," she says. "Someone like that shouldn't be a police officer."

Meanwhile, Mathis says he's trying to snag a copy of the videotape and says if it turns out like described by Koch and an Independent News reporter, he will initiate an internal investigation of McPhail to get to the bottom of the matter.

"I can't say what will happen at this point," he says.

Witt says McPhail should turn his badge in.

"If that's the case, that guy shouldn't be a police officer and ought to be fired," Witt says. "It doesn't do any good to protect officers in these types of cases."

Boynton Beach Officer David Silverman resigned in October in a similar incident when officials saw a video of him using the Taser on a prisoner who was sitting down and not resisting. Silverman told a different story to his supervisors. He was charged with a misdemeanor battery and third-degree felony for falsifying a public record.

McPhail could not be reached for comment. But his signed police report also tells a different story than the videotape. He claims in his report that he had to escort Koch out of the intox room, jail staff arrived to help him escort Koch and that Koch began to struggle with the officers.

"I advised them to back away," McPhail writes. "I utilized my Taser on Koch to gain control of him."

McPhail says that Koch fell to the floor and tried to kick him, so he tasered him again.

Koch says he plans to file a lawsuit against the police department and he says he hopes publicity about his case helps prevent other victims.

"I'm sure they expect people to tuck their tail and run," he says. "But I wasn't being aggressive. I wasn't being combative. That's why I couldn't understand it. I know I'm not the only one this has happened to. Hopefully by speaking out, I might be able to help a lot of other people and do them some good down the road."

duwayne@inweekly.net


Taser Moratorium?

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Amnesty International and other human rights groups are calling for an immediate moratorium on the use of Taser devices, after research has found 86 Taser involved deaths since 1999. Recommendations by the agencies include:

• Suspend all transfers and use of tasers and other electro-shock weapons pending a rigorous, independent and impartial inquiry into their use and effects;

• Develop a federal task force on Taser Guns made up of law enforcement, prosecutors, law professors, attorneys, human rights organizations and members of the public to create a clear national policy and standard on when a Taser Gun should be deployed.

• Ensure that all officers are trained to use force strictly in accordance with international standards and that all use-of-force training programs also include international standards on human rights, particularly the Convention Against Torture.

• Ensure that all allegations of human rights violations and other misconduct are fully and impartially investigated and that all officers found responsible are disciplined and, where appropriate, prosecuted.

• Where law enforcement agencies refuse to suspend their use of tasers, strictly limit their use to situations where the alternative would be use of deadly force.

• Operational rules and training should include a prohibition against using tasers on the following groups except as a last resort: pregnant women, the elderly, children, emotionally disturbed people, the mentally or physically disabled, people in vulnerable positions, and people under the influence of drugs.

• Repeated shocks should be avoided unless absolutely necessary to avoid serious injury or death.

• Introduction of guidelines which prohibit the application of prolonged shocks beyond the five-second discharge cycle.

• Restrict the use of Tasers near flammables, dangerous heights or someone's head or face.

• Require all police officers to undergo at least eight hours of mandatory training in the use of Taser guns each year.

Source: Amnesty International and Southern Christian Leadership Conference


States WITH MOST Taser Involved Deaths 1999-2005

Florida 16
California 15
Canada 9
Georgia 6
Arizona, Colorado, Louisianna, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Washington 3

Source: Southern Christian Leadership Conference 2004 Special Report: "America's Taser Crisis"