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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Minnesota man dies after being tased, troopers put on leave

January 16, 2008

Mark Backlund, 29, an "uncooperative motorist"

Troopers used a taser to control the man, who was then taken to an area hospital and pronounced dead. Five troopers have been placed on administrative leave.

Update - April 4, 2008

Drugs killed man who was Tasered
By JIM ADAMS, Minneapolis Star Tribune

April 4, 2008

An unarmed Fridley man Tasered after a freeway crash died of acute cocaine and other drug abuse, according to an autopsy report released Friday that said crash injuries, heart conditions, physical exertion and police restraint were contributing factors.

In a separate report, the State Patrol said Mark Backlund, 29, was stunned on Jan. 15 because he verbally and physically resisted troopers' requests and tried to drive away even though bystanders were in front of his car.

Backlund was en route to pick his parents up at the airport when he crashed into a central median barrier on Interstate 694 during the evening rush hour in New Brighton. He was unconscious after being Tasered and died that night at a Fridley hospital.

"My son didn't have a weapon and he is Tasered? It doesn't make sense," his father, Gordon Backlund, said Friday. "Why Taser an accident victim sitting in a car?"

Backlund said that the family's car was totaled and that he didn't know whether it could be driven after the crash. He said he has many questions and would like to see the full autopsy and investigation report before commenting further.

"It is hard enough as a father to deal with death," Backlund said. "It is a very difficult time for us."

After the incident, authorities said the driver's side of Backlund's car was wedged against the median. Five troopers and other motorists who had stopped were at the crash scene.

Responding to a Star Tribune open records request, the State Patrol provided part of a Use of Force report filed about the incident. The patrol declined to comment on the report or provide details about what happened.

In March, Tim O'Malley, head of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), which is investigating the case, said the Taser was used after Backlund refused customary, safety-related requests made by a trooper "responding to a single-car crash on a very busy interstate highway during rush hour. Those requests related to the well-being and safety of the driver and other people and motorists on the highway."

The BCA has forwarded its report along with the autopsy findings to the Ramsey County Attorney's office. It will take a few weeks to review it for possible charges against the troopers, said Phil Carruthers, director of the office's prosecution division. He said it is routine for county attorneys to review officer-involved shootings. But office attorneys could recall only one other Taser-related death a few years ago in St. Paul. In that case, police stunned a man on drugs who later died from cocaine delirium, Carruthers said.

Underlying health conditions

In the United States, more than 290 people have died since June 2001 after being struck by police Tasers, according to the human rights group Amnesty International. A 2004 study from the group shows many of those who died had underlying health problems such as heart conditions or mental illness or were under the influence of drugs. Many also were subjected to repeated or prolonged shocks.

Backlund's death certificate, filed Friday by the Anoka County Medical Examiner, cited the cause of death as mixed drug use, including acute cocaine abuse. Tests also detected marijuana, a painkiller and other drugs. Contributing factors included police restraint and heart conditions, including severe hardening of the arteries.

County Medical Examiner Janis Amatuzio said through an assistant that she would not elaborate on what police restraint was used.

The Use of Force report said troopers tried to control Backlund by using a "soft empty hand," then a "hard empty hand" before firing the Taser.

A soft hand usually means using grasping techniques, maybe a wrist lock or twisting an arm behind the back to control someone, said Paul Monteen, standards coordinator for the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training. A hard hand could be a blow with a fist, and an empty hand means without a baton or weapon.

Monteen said it seems that the troopers followed what is called a use of force continuum, beginning with verbal commands, then using open hand restraint, closed fist punches and greater force as needed to meet the force presented.

"If one thing does not work, you go a little higher instead of pulling out the weapon," he said. He said Tasers are generally considered a less lethal weapon, like a baton or night stick.

"It sounds like they tried to use the best practices of their policy," Monteen said. "That would fit the general policy and training that the Legislature has mandated for law enforcement in Minnesota."

The patrol's four-page policy on Tasers says they can be used to control a person who is, or is reasonably expected to become, violent, physically aggressive or who endangers himself, a trooper or others if the trooper didn't use the Taser.

The Backlund case was the State Patrol's only Taser-related death since troopers started carrying the weapons in August. Before that, during a one-year pilot test, troopers displayed Tasers 27 times and fired them 33 times, with no known health-related incidents, according to the Public Safety Department.

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