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Monday, August 08, 2011

Death raises Taser safety questions - High school grad died after being stunned by police officer

August 8, 2011

University of Cincinnati officials said Monday the university has asked the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation to review the circumstances surrounding Everette Howard's death during a campus incident over the weekend.

Howard, 18, died about 2:30 a.m. Saturday after an officer Tased him.

The university's assistant police chief, Jeff Corcoran, said the student approached officers in a dorm hallway, and appeared agitated and angry. Officers ordered Howard to back off, but he refused, Corcoran said. Howard was then hit once by an officer's stun gun.

Afterward, Howard appeared incoherent, according to UC police. He went into cardiac arrest after paramedics arrived and was pronounced dead at University Hospital.

UC has not yet released an incident report.

Hamilton County Coroner Anant Bhati, who is investigating the death, said the teen was shocked with a stun gun once before, and rushed to a hospital.

North College Hill police said Monday that Howard was Tased in January 2009 by an officer at North College Hill High School after he fell ill and became combative.

Once medics got him into an ambulance, they realized he had low blood sugar. A relative said Monday Howard did not suffer from diabetes.

Howard had thrown up the night before and hadn't eaten because he was trying to lose weight to wrestle in a lower weight class, according to the police report.

UC police have temporarily stopped their use of electroshock Taser stun guns.

"Initial review by UC Police suggests that all departmental policies and procedures were followed appropriately," UC's Senior Vice President of Finance & Administration Robert Ambach said in a statement. "The tragic outcome, however, resulting in the death of a young man, calls for extraordinary and objective measures to ensure that the collected facts are independently arrived at and beyond reproach" he said in explaining the decision to involve the Ohio BCI. Howard's parents said they have retained a lawyer but declined to name their attorney. They declined to speak further, saying their focus must now be on burying their son.

Howard was an honor roll student and football player nearing graduation from UC's Upward Bound program, which helps prepare high school students from low-income families for college. He had enrolled this fall in sports and exercise science at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Ky., where he earned a scholarship and planned to join the wrestling and football team.

Family members want more information about what happened and insist the police version of the story conflicts with Howard's character and upbringing.

"My cousin was not in a fight. He was trying to break up a fight," said Stephanie Brown, 40, of Montgomery. "It's devastating. He had a promising future. He had a full scholarship. Why would he put that in jeopardy?"

At least two local suburban police agencies - Colerain Township and Fairfax - stopped using Tasers in the past year over safety and liability concerns in favor of a new tool.

Larger departments such as Cincinnati police and sheriff's offices in Hamilton and Butler counties continue using Tasers. Officials have credited them with helping to reduce fatal police incidents. Cincinnati police began using Tasers after the Nov. 30, 2003, death of Nathaniel Jones in police custody. The 41-year-old man's violent struggle with officers ended when his heart stopped. Jones had cocaine, PCP and methanol in his system.

Cincinnati defense attorney Mike Allen predicts the UC case cause more police agencies to drop the use of Tasers.

The device administers 50,000 volts that usually temporarily immobilize a person's muscles so officers can gain control of the subject. They have a range of 35 feet.

Critics argue that Tasers, while considered non-lethal weapons, too often have a deadly outcome. Since 2001, Amnesty International has recorded more than 340 deaths in North America following police use of Tasers.

Since 2009, Taser's manufacturer, Arizona-based Taser International, has warned law enforcement agencies to avoid stunning suspects in the upper chest, a way of alleviating concerns the weapon's volt shock could affect the heart.

"I see the tide turning," said Allen, a former UC police officer and board of trustee. Allen was also a Cincinnati police officer, Hamilton County Municipal Court judge and Hamilton County Prosecutor before starting his law firm downtown.

Colerain Township and Fairfax officers use the new "Mark 63 Trident" device. Manufactured by Virginia-based Aegis, the device essentially is several weapons rolled into one with high intensity light, pepper spray and a stun gun, although the electrical prongs on the front do not shoot out and enter the body, said Colerain Township Police Chief Dan Meloy.

Colerain officers are completing training on the device this week.

Fairfax Chief Rick Patterson suspended use of Tasers in September over safety concerns.

"I do not know the facts of the UC case so I will not comment on the UC case,'' Patterson said. "I just feel that I didn't want that liability out there for myself, my department and my officers."

Last month a jury handed down a $10-million judgment against Taser International, finding the company and its device partially responsible for the death of 17-year-old Darryl Turner after police in Charlotte, N.C., used a Taser device on him during an altercation at a grocery store in 2008.

Taser officials expressed their condolences to the Turner family, but insist their device was not responsible for his death. Taser plans to appeal the court decision.

A spokesman for Taser did not return a call Monday for comment on the UC case.

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