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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Missouri activists hope Taser settlement teaches lessons

Wednesday, June 24, 2009
BY Christine Lesicko, Missourian

COLUMBIA — With the announcement of a settlement in the Taser death of a Moberly man, local activists who pressured the Columbia Police Department to adopt strict guidelines for the use of Tasers said they hope the incident sent a strong message.

“What happened was abuse of a Taser weapon. Hopefully lessons will be learned from this incident statewide,” said Mary Hussman, a member of the Coalition to Control Tasers.

Family members of Stanley Harlan, 23, who died after being shocked with a Taser in August 2008, will receive $2.4 million in an out-of-court settlement with the city of Moberly.

The city will also suspend the use of all Tasers until two town hall meetings are held and a revised Taser policy is issued, according to a news release from Moberly City Manager Andy Morris.

Harlan was shocked several times with a Taser in front of his house after Moberly police stopped him and tried to arrest him on suspicion of driving while intoxicated, according to previous Missourian reports.

He was pronounced dead at about 2 a.m. on August 28, at Moberly Regional Medical Center.

In November 2008, Randolph County Coroner Gerald Luntsford ruled Harlan's death a homicide. The incident was investigated by the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the FBI, neither of which found any criminal wrongdoing by officers. In January, a special prosecutor assigned to the case announced that no criminal charges would be filed against the officers.

The lawsuit against two Moberly police officers and the city was finalized Monday morning in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

Columbia police have faced criticism for their own use of Tasers, partly because of Harlan's death and other incidents involving the weapons.

The most public of these occurred on July 25, when Phillip Lee McDuffy, 45, of Columbia fell 15 feet from Providence Road bridge over Interstate 70 onto an embankment after police shot him with a Taser. McDuffy was critically injured in the incident, according to previous Missourian reports.

In December, the Missourian reported that McDuffy made a settlement offer to the city of Columbia for $500,000. Deputy Police Chief Tom Dresner said Tuesday that he had not heard anything about the McDuffy settlement and as far as he knew, the case was still pending.

In March, the Columbia Police Department admitted improper Taser use in two cases from September and October 2008. In April, the department issued stricter guidelines for Taser use, including improvements to internal oversight, training and medical care for people shot with a Taser, according to previous Missourian reports.

In April, as one of his first orders, Police Chief Ken Burton chose to adopt all 52 guidelines regarding Taser use set by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), largely as a result of pressure from the coalition.

Dresner said there have not been many Taser incidents since the adoption of the new guidelines, and the department feels “very comfortable” with the policies that have been implemented.

Hussman said implementing PERF guidelines was an important step by the Columbia Police Department.

“We have higher standards here (in Columbia) thankfully, but we need to verify that the PERF standards are being adhered to," she said. "It still has to be shown that officers will adhere to those standards, which is why the coalition thinks that all Taser offense cases should be open to the public.”

Ed Berg, another member of the Coalition to Control Tasers, emphasized that a Taser is a "less lethal weapon, not a non-lethal weapon."

"They should only be used when there is danger to the police, to the public or to the person involved in the incident," he said. "There needs to be specific guidelines for use of Tasers, and police need to follow them.”

The city of Moberly did not admit any fault or liability in the settlement and will not use any of its own funds to make the payment, according to the release. The city's insurance company will be responsible for the payment.

Moberly also agreed to have at least one Automatic External Defibrillator in an on-duty patrol unit and to require officers to complete a training course on recognizing and responding to medical distress.

Stephen Ryals, an attorney for Harlan’s mother, Athena Bachtel, said the settlement “is a bittersweet conclusion to the case.”

“The money is not an issue for my clients, but they were pleased to get reforms in Taser policy and medical reform,” Ryals said.

The family intends to continue working to get the officers responsible for Harlan’s death prosecuted, Ryals said.

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