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Florida Police Brutality and Police Misconduct
 
Page 1
 

A deputy needed just nine words to justify firing his Taser stun gun at a 15-year-old girl:

"Subject was given several commands, but did not comply."

That was enough for six Palm Beach County Sheriff's office supervisors to unanimously approve knocking a 115-pound girl to the ground with a paralyzing 50,000-volt electric shock. The deputy's report is one of more than 1,000 that The Palm Beach Post examined in reviewing three years of Taser use by police from Boca Raton to Fort Pierce, starting in 2001, when the weapon arrived in South Florida.

While some of the reports show that the weapons defused violent confrontations and averted the use of lethal force, the investigation also found:

One out of every four suspects shocked with Tasers was unarmed, non-violent and not posing an apparent immediate threat.

While health risks from Taser shocks remain under debate, officers have fired them at the very young and the very old - at least 35 people 16 and younger, including a 13-year-old girl, and seven people 61 or older, including an 86-year-old man were shocked. The Post also found that at least three women claiming to be pregnant were shocked.

Tasers were fired at more than 425 suspects who were being arrested on misdemeanor charges.

Departments vary widely in how they record and track Taser use, some requiring little or no explanation for why officers fire the weapon.

"There is no medical evidence to support the cavalier use by some police departments," said Ed Jackson, a spokesman for Amnesty International, which has called for a moratorium on the weapon's use. "Tasers are being used in situations where guns, batons, pepper spray would never be used."

Officers used Tasers to stop people who ran, people who were verbally threatening, people who refused to put their hands behind their backs. They used Tasers on handcuffed people who refused to put their feet in police cars.

"There are less draconian tactics that can and should be used in those situations," said George Kirkham, a former police officer, Florida State University criminology professor. They include reasoning, commands, guiding with open hands and "pressure pain compliance" - pressing sensitive areas, such as the jaw, he said.

"Officers are taught these measures that are lower on the force continuum in training. We have pictures of people who won't let go of a steering wheel, and when pressure is applied, their hands come off and no harm is done."

Instead, says Kirkham, "Police are skipping up the use of force continuum through impatience and lack of training."

From October 2001, when Boca Raton Police added Tasers to their arsenal, to last December, 19 police agencies in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast adopted the stun guns. Their use soared from 82 firings in 2002, to 226 in 2003, to 712 last year.

The increase reflects a nationwide trend, and as use has increased, so have calls for moratoriums on the weapons until more is known about their effects and whether they are being abused.

Chicago officials halted distribution of new Tasers to officers after a 14-year-old suffered a heart attack and another man died within a week.

Civic rights activists in Houston called for police to stop and study the weapon's use after 12 people were shocked for "verbal threats" to police officers. Police there, since receiving Tasers in late December, have averaged one Taser firing a day.

Brevard County police chiefs recently agreed on a unified policy that Tasers "will only be utilized when the police officer reasonably believes that a subject is an imminent physical threat or the person is demonstrating an articulable threat to him/herself, the officer, and/or others."

Taser International spokesman Steve Tuttle attributes the increasing scrutiny given the weapons and how they are used to "phenomenal growth," which, according to the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, caused the company's revenue to climb from $2.2 million in 1999 to about $67 million in 2004.

No 'articulable threat'

Until November, Taser International's Web site stated that the weapon is "solely designed to stop the most hardened of targets: extremely violent, aggressive, goal-oriented and drug induced suspects."

Taser's Tuttle said that refers to "the 1-percenters, with superhuman strength and mind-body disconnect." But he adds, the weapon can be used on suspects "up to" that level of resistance as well.

The wording no longer appears on Taser's Web site, but the company's manual used to train Taser instructors, says: "The Taser is best utilized in situations where a hostile or potentially hostile individual is threatening himself or another person." On its Web site, the company typically refers to the target of a Taser as "the attacker."

Cops tout the effectiveness of the weapon in such situations. At the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, assaults on deputies went down from more than 400 in 2003, the year the department adopted the weapon, to 200 assaults the following year, said Captain Frank Demario, a training supervisor for the department. During that year, police officers fired their Tasers 275 times.

In nearly 800 reports from Fort Pierce to Boca Raton, police officers fired Tasers to subdue armed, violent and threatening suspects and suspects who refused to show their hands after repeated commands or who were running toward a house or car from which a weapon could be retrieved.

Described in those reports are a man reaching for a deputy's gun, a suicidal woman holding a knife to her throat, a man armed with a machete who told a deputy "God help you if you come near me" and a violently psychotic man, covered with his own blood and urine, who fought off pepper spray and baton strikes and injured six of seven officers who grappled with him. In nine instances, they were used on snarling dogs.

Of 1,017 accounts of Taser use on humans examined by The Post, however, at least 237 described encounters with people who were not reported to be armed, violent or posing any immediate potential harm to anyone, including themselves. Of those, 143 were charged with misdemeanors, and at least two were not criminally charged at all. They included:

In Riviera Beach, a police officer used his Taser on a man he was trying to question after finding him asleep on a park bench. The man cursed at the officer and refused to stand to be searched. The officer shocked him on his leg and his shoulder and then released him with a warning about trespassing. A Riviera Beach Police supervisor said the police officer was reprimanded for the inappropriate use of force.

In suburban Lake Worth, a deputy investigating a car theft fired his Taser at a man who refused to follow orders. The suspect then complied but wasn't arrested.

A Boynton Beach officer stopped a man for riding a bicycle after dark with no headlight. When the man dismounted and started to run, the police officer shot him with a Taser. The officer took the man and his bike to the police station, issued him a citation, then released him to ride his bicycle into the night - with no headlight.

Police officers and their trainers say capturing fleeing suspects is part of what the Taser is designed for; it is a "distance" weapon that works where others such as pepper spray wouldn't.

Some police departments encourage officers to fire their Tasers rather than chase a fleeing suspect, according to Josh Ederheimer, director of the Police Executive Research Forum's Center for Force and Accountability. That is because foot pursuits can lead to ambushes and accidents. But, he added, "You have to think about it. If someone is running away, the darts can miss or disengage."

The St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office is the largest agency in the three-county region that has refused to issue Tasers to its officers.

"There are some benefits to the tool, but I think that there are too many cases we have seen where there are questions of abuse or excessive use," Chief Deputy Gary Wilson said.

Until they see more specific guidelines for use and more convincing studies showing the effects of 50,000 volts of electricity flowing through the bodies of the elderly, pregnant women and drug addicts, Wilson said, they will not use the weapon.

Accountability varies widely

Some departments weigh officers' cannisters of pepper spray at the start and end of every shift.

Tasers come equipped with a "dataport" in the weapon that is designed to record every trigger pull.

That record protects officers from unfounded complaints of abuse and allows supervisors to track their use, Taser International points out.

Departments vary widely, however, in how thoroughly they require officers to explain each use and how much the use is scrutinized by supervisors. In addition, only a handful of departments attempt to track how often their officers point the weapons without firing.

In addition, reports in which officers fired at "unknown" suspects who escaped without being hit by the prongs don't in themselves raise a red flag, according to Ederheimer of PERF, because it is understood that Taser shots can go astray. Such incidents, however, leave only an officer's account of why the Taser was used. Of 16 reports of "unknown subjects," nine from Riviera Beach cops did not report any description of who they were firing at, including gender or race or why they were trying to detain or arrest the person.

West Palm Beach police require supervisors reviewing Taser incidents to interview suspects and to evaluate the use of force in their own words.

The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, in contrast, requires supervisors only to read the police officer's report and conclude whether the use was within department guidelines.

Police chiefs in Palm Beach County are now working on countywide guidelines for Taser use. A panel headed by Boca Raton Police Chief Andrew Scott has examined restrictions on stun gun use, circumstances under which the weapons should be used and medical treatment following Taser shootings. Scott declined to point to specific changes being considered but said resulting guidelines are likely to go beyond issues addressed in existing local policies.

Bradshaw is optimistic, too, about those efforts.

"Obviously you're going to prohibit use of Tasers on pregnant, elderly, children, people in high places," he said.

05/24/2005 - An officer has been suspended for zapping a 13-year-old girl at least twice with a stun gun while she was handcuffed in his caged patrol car. An internal report by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office said Llahsmin Lynn Kallead was handcuffed and in the back seat of the patrol car when Officer G.A. Nelson stunned her, the Florida Times-Union reported for Tuesday editions.

Nelson and his partner had been called to the apartment Kallead shares with her mother Rosie Vaughan because they were fighting Feb. 7. Vaughan wanted police to help get medical help for her daughter, who had been hospitalized for observation in the past for emotional disorders, the newspaper said.

Nelson, a 6-foot-2 officer weighing 300 pounds, allegedly used the low-setting stun mode when the 4-foot-8 Kallead wormed the handcuffs from behind her back and would not do as directed. "The situation was under control at this point," the internal report said.
Sgt. D.E. Smith, who was called to the scene, said, "Please don't tell me this is the person you Tased." Department spokesman Ken Jefferson said Nelson has been suspended for three days.

"A supervisor questioned the judgment of the officer, and he began the investigation process," Jefferson said Monday. Nelson did not violate written guidelines on using stun guns, but his actions showed poor judgment, the report said. He had been trained to use Tasers and received training as an instructor in January.

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05/24/2005 - A police officer and two other men were arrested Monday, accused of entering the home of a Brazilian man, threatening him and stealing a rare watch and more than $47,000 in cash.

Police said Officer Milton McKinnon, 35, joined Michael Alexis Kuryla and Justin Tavis Bohanan, both 31, in the raid. All three were released from jail after posting $250,000 bail each. On April 17 the three men went to Fransisco Decarvalho's home in the Brickell neighborhood. Decarvalho is a Brazilian national, police said.

McKinnon was in uniform and the other two told Decarvalho that they were police officers, investigators said. According to police spokesman Lt. Bill Schwartz, the men were allegedly hired by Miami jewelry store owner David Levison to collect $61,000 in a business debt.

Schwartz said Decarvalho had purchased watches from Levison under the assumption that one of them was a very rare timepiece. After Decarvalho found out the watch was counterfeit, he stopped payment on a check to Levison. Levison then employed Kuryla to get the money or watches back, Schwartz said.

Police do not know if McKinnon was paid for his participation, during which he was on duty, dressed in full police uniform, driving a marked vehicle and carrying his service firearm, police said.

While at the apartment, Kuryla took four expensive watches worth more than $100,000 and pocketed more than $47,000 in cash. McKinnon withheld the victims' passports and returned them along with three of the watches before leaving the apartment, police said. The watch stolen was worth $50,000, police said.

They trio was charged with armed home invasion robbery and armed false imprisonment. Kuryla and Bohanan were charged with impersonating police officers, while McKinnon was charged with helping them impersonate police.

Levison did not immediately return a message left at his store for comment. McKinnon has been relieved of duty and is facing termination, Schwartz said.

=====================

05/24/2005 - A police officer who worked at Lakeland High School has been suspended for violating the police department's stun gun policy.

In one case, Officer Michael Branch stunned five members of the school's baseball team after they "asked you to show them what it felt like to be 'Tased' and you obliged them," Police Chief Roger Boatner said in a disciplinary letter to Branch.

In a later incident, Branch stunned two boys, ages 17 and 18, who were blocking his path as he tried to make his way to a fight that had broken out between two students.

"The students were not facing you at the time and did not offer 'active physical resistance,' " Boatner said. Active resistance is a required factor in the department's policy on proper Taser use.

The weapons, which deliver 50,000 volts of electricity and are touted as nonlethal by their manufacturer and law enforcement, have been under increased scrutiny after the deaths of some suspects. Amnesty International USA cites 103 Taser-related deaths in the United States and Canada since 2001 and has called for a moratorium on their use until further medical studies can be done.

The human rights group is especially concerned about use on children because their brains are still developing and there is no medical evidence as to how the jolts may affect that development or whether they could cause emotional problems, Edward Jackson, media director for Amnesty International, said Friday.

Drug intoxication is the official cause of death in most Taser-related deaths, Jackson said, which raises another concern: "If kids are on Ritalin and they're shocked with the Taser, are we going to see the same situations that we've seen with adults who are on stimulants and die after being shocked with a Taser?"

Boatner acknowledged the ongoing debate in his letter and said that is why following department policy is important. "To develop a personal deployment policy on the 'fly' is unsound and cannot be permitted," he told Branch.

Boatner imposed a 2 1/2-day suspension for the baseball incident and a one-day suspension for the fight, although he made them concurrent so Branch will miss only 2 1/2 days.

Branch, a 17-year department veteran, has transferred to school resource officer at Lakeland Highlands Middle School and "voluntarily gave up his Taser," police spokesman Jack Gillen said.

Branch reported his use of the Taser during the fight, but police didn't learn about the baseball players being stunned until another student told his father and the father complained to Lakeland's principal, Gillen said.

===================

05/24/2005 - Deputies who claim they were coerced by supervisors into falsifying crime reports won't be able to use that as a defense in their upcoming misconduct trials without a specific ruling from a judge.

Broward Circuit Judge Michael Gates' recently ruled that Christian Zapata, a former Broward Sheriff's Office detective in Weston who is accused of wrongly clearing cases, can't present any evidence, testimony or documents that could show he did so at the behest of supervisors.

Jury selection gets underway today for Zapata's trial, two years after the State Attorney's Office began investigating allegations that deputies cooked up phony numbers on crime reports.

With only three deputies charged since the onset of the investigation, the outcome of Zapata's trial could have a big impact on whether other BSO investigators will be charged in the coming months.

''It could definitely be a show stopper if he [Zapata] is found not guilty,'' said Peter Scharf, director of the Center for Society, Law and Justice, at the University of New Orleans.

A former BSO detective in Oakland Park, Joe Isabella, pleaded guilty April 12 to falsifying a police report.

Isabella told BSO investigators he wrongfully cleared cases because of pressure from supervisors and colleagues. Isabella intended to use a coercion defense if his case had gone to trial.

BSO fired Isabella in April.

Zapata and former Weston detective Chris Thieman, also arrested in December on multiple counts of official misconduct, were placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of their trials.

A former detective, Scott Jordan, has told prosecutors that supervisors pressured him into clearing cases improperly. Jordan has not been charged with a crime.

Prosecutors also took a statement from the director of the nonprofit National Institute of Ethics, who conducted integrity classes at BSO in 2000, 2001 and 2003.

Neil Trautman, in a Jan. 28 sworn statement given to Broward prosecutors, condemned crime accountability systems such as BSO's Powertrac, in part because they inevitably push top brass to pressure underlings to improve their crime rates by any means.

''If the prosecution isn't letting [deputies] talk about the climate of coercion within the agency, maybe they're just going after the foot soldiers and not the generals,'' Scharf said.

`It's difficult at this time to say just how high they want to go.''

Zapata, an eight-year veteran, is charged with making up confessions and pinning crimes on people who were in jail or school at the time the burglary or theft occurred.

For example:

Records show Zapata blamed one teen for nearly 30 Weston-area crimes, including one where he said the then 14-year-old hauled away 27 trees weighing more than six tons from a vacant lot.

Zapata arrested a 15-year-old and cleared nearly a dozen crimes by saying the teen committed them, although attendance records show the youth was at Falcon Cove Middle School at the time some of the crimes were committed.

Zapata blamed numerous burglaries on a 21-year-old, including the theft of an amplifier from the trunk of a car in the Weston Hills subdivision, that took place 16 hours after he was in custody.

The trial is expected to last up to four weeks with prosecutors calling more than 100 witnesses.

4/23/2005 - ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. A 5-year-old girl was handcuffed by police after she tore papers off a bulletin board and punched an assistant principal in kindergarten class, according to a video released by a lawyer for the child's mother.

The 30-minute tape shows the child appearing to calm down before three police officers pinned her arms behind her back and put on handcuffs as she screamed, "No!"

The camera was rolling March 14 as part of a classroom self-improvement exercise at Fairmount Park Elementary, attorney John Trevena said.

Trevena, who provided the tape to the media this week, said he got it from police. "The image itself will be seared into people's minds when you have three police officers bending a child over a table and forcibly handcuffing her," said Trevena, who represents the girl's mother, Inga Akins.

Police spokesman Bill Proffitt said an investigation into the matter would be complete in about two weeks and the findings would be made public.

=============

11/11/2004 --Miami-Dade police shocked a 6-year-old boy with a 50,000-volt stun gun to keep him from hurting himself with a piece of glass he was waving around in a school office, officials confirmed Thursday.

Police say they followed their Taser guidelines, the child wasn't injured by the shock and he might have hurt himself seriously if they hadn't shocked him.

But the incident, which occurred Oct. 20 at Kelsey Pharr Elementary in Brownsville, has child advocates and experts shaking their heads in disbelief.

''It just sounds excessive to me to Taser gun a 6-year-old when everyone else around there were adults,'' said retired Broward County Juvenile Judge Frank Orlando, who runs a youth-law clinic at Nova Southeastern University. "They couldn't subdue a 6-year-old? Must have been a pretty big kid.''

Police Director Bobby Parker said his department is reviewing the incident, but he defended the officer's decision to use the stun gun.

''We know the child was not harmed other than the little tiny probe pricks you get with the Taser,'' Parker said. 'What we do not know is if the child would or would not have subsequently cut his vein. Had the child cut his vein and the officer had not Tasered the child, somebody would be saying, `Well, you had the Taser. Why didn't you Taser the child?' ''

The boy, who has not been identified, had broken a picture frame in the assistant principal's office and was keeping a security guard at bay when the principal called 911. The police report did not say why the boy was so agitated, but principal Maria Mason told police he had a history of behavioral problems. Mason declined to comment Thursday.

By the time Miami-Dade Officers Marie Abbott and Yolanda Rivera and schools police Officer Valerie Staten arrived, the boy had a cut under his right eye and another on his left hand. The officers tried to get him to put down the shard, according to the police report.

Abbott slid a trash can, hoping the boy would throw the glass away.

When he wouldn't, Rivera contacted a supervisor to see if there was a policy prohibiting the use of a stun gun on a child. There isn't, and the officer was told to do what she felt was necessary.

The officers continued to talk to the child, who didn't respond.

When he tried to cut his own thigh, the officers acted. Abbott shocked him with her Taser while Rivera grabbed him before he collapsed.

The boy was treated by paramedics at the school and taken to Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he was committed for psychiatric evaluation.

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