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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Use of 'nonlethal' force may be a factor in many deaths

April 25, 2010
By Meg Laughlin, St. Petersburg Times

On a balmy fall night, two police officers in a squad car in east Bradenton spotted a man on a bicycle without a headlight.

Derrick Humbert, 38, rode a bike around town because seizures from a head injury prevented him from driving. He worked odd jobs as a short-order cook and gardener. He took care of his three kids, 2, 8 and 11, while their mother worked the evening shift at a 7-Eleven.

On this Monday in late September, he was riding home from a convenience store just after midnight when police told him to stop.

Instead, he pedaled around a corner past three houses, jumped off the bike and ran into a yard, the two officers chasing him on foot.

It is not clear why Humbert fled. Police later said that they wanted to stop him because it was a high-crime area, though Humbert was not wanted in connection with any crime. Only later would they learn that he had a misdemeanor conviction for marijuana possession, with unpaid fines.

Officer Del Shiflett yelled that he was firing his Taser. Humbert, who was hard of hearing, scrambled over a 4-foot chain-link fence and made it into a second yard. One probe hit Humbert's left shoulder, the other went in his lower back. Hit with 50,000 volts of electricity, he fell facedown in the dirt. Twenty-eight minutes later, he was in a deep coma in an ambulance on the way to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Derrick Humbert was the 55th person to die in Florida after being shot by a Taser in the past decade. His death tied Florida with California for the most Taser-associated deaths in the nation. (Now, Florida stands alone in first place, with 57 deaths.) Humbert's death put the case at the center of a national Taser debate, which pits the increasing popularity of the weapon against mounting evidence of its risks.

But as the Humbert case shows, police depend on the Taser so much that in some cases they may overlook evidence that it may be doing harm.

• • •

The Taser, invented by a NASA scientist in 1974, got its name from a science fiction book called Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle. When fired, the X-26 Taser, the model used by Bradenton police, propels two small darts connected to copper wires over 20 feet. The darts embed in the skin and shock with 50,000 volts of electricity, causing the recipient severe muscle contractions and temporary paralysis. Police officers in training exercises describe it as "excruciatingly painful."

By 2000, Taser International, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., was filling large orders for Tasers, which the company described as "the first nonlethal weapon capable of stopping aggressive, focused or drug-impaired persons." Not only did it stop people who were a danger to the public, police and themselves, it cut down on deaths of suspects and injuries to police officers. The conventional wisdom, repeated in Taser International training exercises, was "Taser early, Taser often."

At a 2004 Taser conference in Las Vegas for police officers, Mike Brave, a lawyer for Taser International, told the group: "We have to get across in people's minds that the Taser is incredibly effective, but does not cause injury."

His conclusion: "Taser saves lives, careers and money."

Last year, Taser International took in $104 million in revenue, with more than 15,000 public safety agencies in 40 countries using the Taser, its company website says.

But there is a downside.

In 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense looked at Taser effects and said more research was needed on "those with underlying heart conditions and drug users." That same year, Amnesty International looked at 61 deaths after Taser use and said that "many of those who died had underlying heart problems."

The ACLU of Northern California said in a Taser report in 2005: "Certainly the failure of many in law enforcement to ask tough questions about Taser is partly to blame. But Taser International is also responsible because its questionable marketing practices and exaggerated safety claims provide the basis for local police policy."

At a national conference of police officers in June 2008, the National Institute of Justice, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice, published an interim report on Tasers that reflected both sides of the controversy: "Studies undertaken by law enforcement agencies indicate reduced injuries to officers and suspects. … However, a significant number of individuals have died after exposure (to a Taser). Some were normal healthy adults; others were chemically dependent or had heart disease."

In October 2009, the Arizona Republic said the Taser was a cause, a factor, or could not be ruled out, in 30 deaths.

Which takes us back to Derrick Humbert: Did the Taser play a role in his death? And did the department, which tends to be pro-Taser like most U.S. law enforcement agencies, look objectively at information to answer this question?

Bradenton Police Department spokesman Jeffrey Lewis declined to answer questions. Look at the internal investigation, he said.

"The work speaks for itself."

• • •

The investigation began a few hours after Humbert's death. Lt. Warren Merriman, head of the department's Office of Professional Standards, interviewed nine officers on video. But first the watch commander that night, Sgt. Charles McCrea, told some of them what he thought.

As he spoke in the hallway, a recorder in the interview room picked up his words:

"He (Humbert) is a doper. I'm putting it on the dope. I was on the verge of having a cardiac event and my heart wasn't that high. That kills me about the Taser thing because I don't see the Taser being involved. Without it, none of us would be here. I pop him with 10,000 volts or something with an aneurysm. Why's your heart going to go bappa, bappa, bappa, bap if it's not full of dope? You follow me?

"It (the Taser) is not deadly, but you know there's a controversy nationally."

That same day, Deputy Chief William Tokajer talked to the Humbert family about Humbert's death. Humbert's sister, Christina Humbert Sutton, an elementary school athletic coach, put him on speaker phone so that Humbert's three other sisters, his aunt and brother-in-law could also hear.

According to the six, Tokajer told them that Humbert was in such good shape after being shot with the Taser that he walked to the ambulance. They say Tokajer told them their brother was still up and talking at 12:45 a.m., which was 26 minutes after being hit with the Taser.

A few weeks later, police Chief Mike Radzilowski supported Tokajer in a conversation with the St. Petersburg Times.

"Derrick Humbert was fine after the Taser," said the chief. "EMS took him to the hospital to make sure there weren't any medical problems."

Witnesses, none of whom were interviewed by police, told the Times a different story.

"I heard the Taser. Then I heard the guy gasping and groaning. He sounded bad from the time he was tased till they picked him up and put him on a stretcher and put him in the ambulance," said Dequan Siplin, 11, an honor roll student at Bradenton River Middle School. His open bedroom window was about 20 feet from where Humbert was shot with the Taser.

" 'My chest is hurting. I'm dying. I can't breathe.' That's what Humbert told police," said Horatio Papillon, 40, whose yard Humbert ran through. "He wasn't walking around, talking like everything was okay. He was gasping for air when he said it."

Melinda Corona, 23, watched from a window across the street as Humbert dumped the bike, ran through a gate and into two yards, a total of about 50 to 60 feet. After Humbert was struck with the Taser, Corona walked out of the house to see and hear better.

According to Corona, the officer who fired the Taser asked Humbert: "Why are you breathing so hard when you didn't run any farther than I did?"

"Humbert was wheezing and begging for help," said Corona. "I have asthma and he sounded like me when I have an asthma attack."

Two police officers helped Humbert to a squad car. When two others tried to help him out of the car, Humbert fell on the pavement, said Corona.

"He couldn't stand. He was bad. They lifted him onto a stretcher and put him in an ambulance," she said.

The reports from Emergency Medical Services support what the neighbors say.

They show Humbert in crisis. His pulse was over 200 beats per minute — alarmingly high. It decreased over the next 20 minutes until he died. His breathing in the ambulance was so labored he needed oxygen and a pump-bag to breathe.

Capt. Larry Leinhauser of the Manatee County Public Safety Department, which oversees Bradenton EMS: "We rarely have serious implications from Tasers. But you look at the record here and have to believe the Taser could be a contributing factor, for sure."

The videotaped interviews of the officers also confirm what the EMS time line and the witnesses said.

Four police officers give versions like Corona's: Humbert ran 50 to 60 feet, not multiple blocks. The officers give a more detailed picture of his physical distress than the report summary.

"Was he having trouble with balance?" the interviewer asked Del Shiflett, who shot the Taser.

"Yes," said Shiflett.

From Officer Chris Roden's video interview: "I handcuffed him lying on the ground. He was conscious, talking, saying, 'I can't breathe.' "

From Officer Timothy Gunst's video interview: "The suspect said he gets seizures. I called EMS. We walked him out to the street. He was really sweaty. He kept saying, 'It's hard for me to breathe.' "

From Officer Leonel Marines' video interview: "He says, 'I'm hurtin' really bad.' He says, 'I can't breathe. It feels like I'm dying.' "

But the report from police, which the medical examiner read before determining the cause of death, excluded these details from the rescue workers and the police.

Manatee County Deputy Medical Examiner William Broussard, Jr. issued his findings about the cause of death in mid December. His report does not mention that Humbert was having problems breathing, complaining of pain in his chest or saying he was dying. Instead, the autopsy report described Humbert as "alert and oriented following the (Taser) deployment."

"We didn't see the video interviews. We read summaries provided by the Bradenton Police Department, which is the usual procedure," said Manatee County Chief Medical Examiner Russell Vega.

The autopsy report noted that Humbert had underlying heart disease exacerbated by "running multiple blocks." And, he had 57 nanograms of cocaine in his system.

The deputy medical examiner concluded that because of Humbert's "apparent recovery after the deployment of the electronic control device" that there was "no evidence that the electronic control device (Taser) played any role in causing the death."

The cause of death, according to the autopsy report: "Acute cocaine toxicity and hypertensive and atherosclerotic heart disease."

Experts asked by the Times to review this report expressed varying levels of skepticism about its conclusions.

Dr. Joseph Saady, chief toxicologist for the state of Virginia until 2009, agreed to talk about the case. Saady said he found the cause of death "odd" because the cocaine level was so low.

"To have acute cocaine toxicity, which means an overdose, you expect to see in excess of 1,000 nanograms of cocaine. Fifty-seven nanograms is not consistent with acute cocaine toxicity."

Vega conceded that the cocaine level was "relatively low," but said that along with the heart disease and exertion it probably had an effect.

Tampa cardiologist Joel Strom looked at the EMS records, information from the video interviews of police and the autopsy report and offered an opinion:

"There are so many ingredients here — underlying heart disease, a small amount of cocaine. He didn't run far but the adrenaline was probably pumping because he was running from police. Add to all of this the Taser, which probably triggered the cardiac event that led to his death. It's far-fetched to exclude the Taser from playing any role at all."

Tampa cardiac electro­physiologist Bengt Herweg, who runs the Florida Heart Rhythm Institute: "Excluding the Taser entirely as a contributor to Humbert's death raises questions about objectivity."

Vega offered this: "I wish we knew more about Tasers. I can't say the Taser could not have played a role. Might Humbert have survived without the Taser? It's possible."

But would the autopsy report change?

"It's unlikely," Vega said.

• • •

Earlier this year, a federal appeals court in California ruled in favor of a man who had been shot with a Taser and injured. When the man was stopped by police for not wearing a seat belt, he got out of the car, stood about 20 feet away and hit his own thighs because he was angry at himself. The officer fired his Taser.

The appellate panel said that the use of the Taser was excessive because the man wasn't "an immediate threat to the officer or others." The level of the offense should also be considered when weighing whether someone is a danger, the court said.

In Humbert's situation, no light on his bike wasn't a reason to arrest him, but ignoring a lawful order to stop was. In his video interview, Shiflett, who fired the Taser, said he tried to stop Humbert because sometimes such stops "deter drug crimes or burglary in a high-crime area."

The problem with using the Taser when Humbert fled was that Shiflett had no way of knowing he had an underlying heart problem and cocaine in his system, which made him especially vulnerable to a Taser.

Because it's impossible to spot these vulnerabilities, the Department of Justice with the Police Executive Research Forum published a report a few years ago with this recommendation: "That a subject is fleeing should not be the sole justification for police use of (a Taser). Severity of offense and other circumstances should be considered before officers' use (of a Taser) on the fleeing subject."

Steve Tuttle, communications director for Taser International, says the company has no opinion on these recommendations: "We don't get involved with the guidelines that individual agencies adopt," he said.

The Bradenton Police Department, like most police agencies across the country, has yet to incorporate these recommendations into its policy.

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