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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

University of Cincinnati deletes large portions of Taser death incident reports

The University of Cincinnati deleted large portions of public police records about Saturday’s fights and Taser incident that culminated in a death.

In response to the Enquirer’s public information request, the university released 14 pages of incident reports and dispatch logs.

But the university “redacted,” or blacked out, even basic information from the reports such as names, birthdates and addresses, despite Ohio law’s presumption that public records, including police reports, are open.

“An incident report … is required to be turned over, unredacted, upon request under the Public Records Act,” said Jack Greiner, attorney for the Enquirer.

The newspaper sought the records in hopes of shedding light on incidents preceding the death of Everette Howard, 18, of North College Hill, on Saturday – an incident that has gained some national attention. The Christian Science Monitor reported Monday that Howard was among three people in the U.S. to die after being shocked with Tasers this past weekend.

It’s unclear whether a police officer’s use of a Taser to shock Howard caused his death. The Hamilton County Coroner’s Office estimated it would take a month or longer to finish lab tests that could help pinpoint a cause of death. While that investigation continues, the university has discontinued its use of Tasers.

Meanwhile, the Enquirer maintains that the records about the incident are public, Greiner said. Under Ohio law, the records ought to be released in their entirety, except for any Social Security numbers, Greiner said. Ironically, one Social Security number remained visible, unredacted, on the report provided to the newspaper; the Enquirer removed that number from the report it posted online.

On Tuesday, when a reporter told UC Assistant General Counsel Doug Nienaber that the police document was probably the most heavily redacted she had seen in her 25-year newspaper career, he replied, “Thank you.”

Asked for legal justification for the deletions, Nienaber cited a section of Ohio law that allows “law enforcement investigatory” information to be concealed from the public.

Greiner said that, by law, an incident report is not part of the investigation. "It starts the investigation," he said, and therefore cannot be considered a "law enforcement investigatory record."

Nienaber said the name of the officer who used his Taser weapon to shock Howard was withheld because he is potentially an “uncharged suspect.”

While Ohio law allows names of uncharged suspects to remain secret, that’s only when the names are contained in investigative records, not in incident reports, Greiner said.

Nienaber said the redactions were extensive because the university did not want to risk releasing anything that would jeopardize the investigation that an outside agency has been asked to conduct.

“The last thing I want to do is flood the public with information” while the investigation is pending, he said.

UC police said their initial review of the incident showed that all departmental policies and procedures were followed. But an outside investigator, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification, has been asked to perform an independent review of circumstances surrounding Howard’s death.

Hamilton County Coroner Amant Bhati has said the honor roll student and football standout had a heart murmur and had undergone surgeries to remove his appendix and fix a hernia. But those issues wouldn’t have caused his sudden death, Bhati said.

The teen also had been shocked with a Taser before.

In January 2009, North College Hill police used the weapon to subdue him after he was combative at his school, a report says.

After medics treated him for low blood sugar, he was cooperative, police said.

In Saturday’s incident, police said Howard appeared agitated and angry when he approached officers in a dorm hallway. After an officer used his Taser on Howard, the teen appeared incoherent. After paramedics arrived, he went into cardiac arrest.

He died at University Hospital.

The death is hitting hard at the 48-member UC police department, which covers four campuses, including the main one in University Heights, University Hospital and smaller campuses in Blue Ash and Clermont County.

“This is devastating to all of us,” UC Police Chief Gene Ferrara said Tuesday. “It’s terrible. Nobody wants this to be the outcome.”

The officer who stunned Howard remains on paid administrative leave, which is standard procedure, until he is cleared by a psychologist to return to work, Ferrara said.

A Taser administers 50,000 volts, intended to temporarily immobilize a person’s muscles so officers can gain control of a combative person.

While police say the device helps them avoid resorting to firing bullets at a person, critics argue that Tasers, while considered non-lethal weapons, sometimes have been linked to deaths. Since 2001, Amnesty International has recorded more than 340 deaths in North America following police use of Tasers.

Two years ago, Taser’s manufacturer, Arizona-based Taser International, began warning law enforcement agencies to avoid stunning suspects in the upper chest, a way of alleviating concerns that the weapon’s volt shock could affect the heart.

UC police follow that guideline, Ferrara said. It is not yet clear where the Taser’s probes contacted Howard’s body, the coroner said.

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