“Wheeler was taken to the hospital emergency room after he admitted he’d eaten cocaine because the police on the scene didn’t know how much he’d eaten,” Sgt. Brian Gillian, Public Information Officer for the Orlando Police Department told Cannabis Culture. “The officers were actually trying to save his life there, protect him from overdose.”
Once at Florida Hospital, Wheeler was handcuffed to a hospital bed and ordered to give a urine sample, which the hospital claimed was standard procedure for people who admit taking drugs or alcohol. (When questioned about the purpose of the urine sample, Florida Hospital spokeswoman Melanie Trivento told CC she “was not permitted to comment on the procedure,”)
When Wheeler didn’t produce a sample, his arms and legs were strapped to the bed and he was again ordered to urinate. When he still wouldn’t cooperate, nurses at the hospital attempted to insert a catheter into Wheeler’s penis, at which time he began “thrashing around,” according to the police report.
An officer at the scene who was not among the arresting officers, Peter Linnenkamp, jumped on the bed and put his knees on Wheeler’s chest to restrain him. When even that failed to get Wheeler to produce the urine sample, Linnenkamp pressed his police-issue Taser against Wheeler’s leg, sending a 5-second burst of 50,000 volts of electricity through Wheeler’s system.
A few moments later, when Wheeler continued to refuse to allow the nurses to insert the catheter, Linnenkamp tasered him again.
According to Linnenkamp’s report of the incident, “After the second shock (Wheeler) stated he would urinate, and calmed down enough to be given the portable urinal.”
When the story broke it prompted an internal police investigation, which resulted in an April 18 indictment of Linnenkamp on the charge of battery. Linnenkamp, who otherwise has a clean record over 18-years on the force, may lose his job and pension and could ? though it’s unlikely ? do a little jail time.
In a subsequent interview at the Orange County Jail where Wheeler was being held on $7,500 bail on charges that include possession of cocaine with intent to sell, escape, and resisting without violence, he admitted he aggressively resisted having the catheter inserted because he was terrified it would hurt. “I feel I was basically raped,” he said.
WHAT’S GOING ON?
The incident is disturbing for several reasons. The hospital wouldn’t ? and the Orlando police couldn’t ? explain what a urine sample would prove. It certainly wouldn’t show anything active in Wheeler’s system.
It’s also illegal in the US for any doctor or health care worker to perform a procedure on a patient who refuses treatment. Case law is clear that police must wait for urine samples, in the same way they must wait for smugglers who swallow packaged drugs to eliminate them on their own, with no laxatives allowed.
The Wheeler case is also a perfect example of a long and growing list of abuses committed on civilians at the hands of Taser-happy police officers. They range from disturbed children being tasered to get them to calm down, to old men and women simply refusing to comply quickly enough with police orders. And a growing number of those tasered are turning up dead.
WHAT IS A TASER?
Police use of stun guns began in the late-1970s. Correctional facilities also often use stun batons (cattle prods) or stun-belts on prisoners who are considered dangerous while being transferred.
But the new era of Tasers didn’t begin until 2000, when TASER International of Arizona introduced the TASER M26.
Looking like a sci-fi gun with bright yellow striping across a black body, TASER is an acronym for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle. The M26 shoots out two fish-hook-barbed electrical wires a distance of 21 feet, and penetrates either clothing or skin to deliver a 50,000-volt shock in a cycle that lasts 5 seconds. The shock renders the recipient instantly immobile for its duration, and the 5-second cycle may be increased if the officer continues to hold the trigger down.
In a Dec. 13, 2001 press release announcing a large purchase of the M26 Tasers by the Los Angeles Police Department, TASER Intl. noted that the new generation Taser was “nearly four times more powerful than previous Tasers” and that the M26 came equipped with “built-in laser sights and an onboard data chip that records the time and date of each firing to backup an officer’s use of force reports.”
Two years later, in 2003, TASER introduced the TASER X26, offering “even greater stopping power than the Advanced Taser M26.”
Both models can be used either with their firing darts, or by placing the weapon directly in contact with clothing or skin.
The company, which now markets both the M26 and the X26 to more than 7,000 police forces worldwide ? as well as to limited units in the United States military ? claims the Tasers are intended for use against “dangerous, combative, or high-risk subjects that may be impervious to other non-lethal means.” The company claims the low-amperage of the electric current (.004 amperes) prevents Tasers from causing permanent damage on suspects, and lowers the risk of lethal police force by providing them with a “less-lethal” alternative.
Unfortunately, police policies don’t replace guns with Tasers on their “use of force continuum,” the levels of force used to diffuse or control police situations. That continuum begins with simple police presence, then moves to issuing commands, the use of open hands, the use of pepper or other chemical sprays, the use of closed hands (including elbows and knees and other takedown moves), the use of a hard baton, and finally, the use of lethal force.
In many of the agencies that use them, however, Tasers are placed immediately after the “issuing commands” force level. Which means that if an officer asks you to produce your driver’s license and you ask “why?” rather than immediately complying with the order, there’s a chance you’ll be tasered for refusing the command. This opens the doors to its use as a weapon of compliance?a bullying tool to get people in line.
And that’s where the problem with Tasers begins.
Thomas J. Luca, a Florida defense attorney who has brought suit against several officers in Orlando and two neighboring counties, says that the Taser has changed the way police work is done in areas where it’s used.
“Cops now approach suspects with a completely hands-off investigative technique. They used to have to talk with people, do some real police work. Now it’s ?do what we say or we’ll Taser you.’ The cops are way over the top in their use of these things despite what they tell you. A lot of them are just plain Taser-happy. And the police policies justify that approach.”
In a massive report released last Nov. 30 on Taser use by police between 2001-2004 Amnesty International found hundreds of documented cases where the use of a Taser was at best a poor choice of force, at worst criminal. Among the most egregious cases noted were:
In Oregon, police had tasered people “after stopping them for non-violent offenses, such as littering and jaywalking, selling plastic flowers without a license, and failing to go away when told to.”
Oregon police had tasered an elderly man after he dropped “onto his hands and knees instead of lying flat on the floor, as ordered by police.”
And 71-year-old Eunice Crowder was tasered after ignoring police orders, when they told her not to enter a trailer where rubbish had been placed with a warrant to remove it from her yard. Crowder won a $145,000 out-of-court settlement from the City of Portland after it was learned that two officers “struck Ms. Crowder (who was blind in one eye) in the head with tasers, dislodging her prosthetic right eye from its socket. She was also tasered in the back and on the breast as she lay on the ground.”
In Mesa, Arizona, police tasered an unarmed suspect in a house burglary that had climbed into a tree to escape from four guard dogs. The man fell, landing on his head and leaving him partially paralyzed. In Chandler, Arizona, police told a man who was “standing on the sidewalk yelling and screaming at the sky” to be quiet. He continued screaming and was tasered. He fell to the ground but “as the subject began to get up, the taser was cycled a second time.”
In Seattle, a 16-year-old was tasered four times on the back of the neck when the car in which he was a passenger was stopped for a faulty headlight. Police decided to frisk the youngster outside the car because they claimed he “made furtive movements in the back seat,” and tasered him repeatedly when he resisted being searched. In Kansas City, MO, a 66-year-old African American woman was tasered twice in her home after she resisted being handed a ticket for honking her car horn at a police car.
In Baytown, Texas, “a man who had reportedly suffered from two epileptic seizures was touch stunned in an ambulance when, confused and disoriented, he resisted while being strapped onto a stretcher.” Also in Baytown, 59-year-old disabled Naomi Autin was tasered three times for banging on her brother’s door with a brick. Autin was collecting mail for her brother while he was away and became worried after she couldn’t reach his house sitter. She was the one who had called the police for help.
In Florida, Amnesty International reported tasers being used on “a man who refused to discard the drink he was drinking in a park, and refused to turn round and be handcuffed; a woman who, ordered out of a pool for swimming naked and once dressed, refused repeated commands to turn round and put her hands behind her back; and a 14-year-old boy who had allegedly broken a window and tried to run away,” among others
In none of these cases were police found guilty of any wrongdoing. Amnesty International did note that in several instances, following highly publicized and controversial Taser use, law enforcement agencies tightened their officers’ restrictions on future use.
Some agencies have also implemented rules against tasering children, pregnant women and the elderly. None however, restrict its use to potentially life threatening situations. As noted in the Amnesty report, “Tasers are commonly used to secure compliance in routine arrest and non-life-threatening situations.”
“Initially,” says Orlando Police Department’s Sgt. Gilliam, “our policy was that if someone resisted arrest ? even passively, like not presenting hands when told to ? we could use the Taser. Now, we’ve changed the policy to where we won’t use it unless they’re actively resisting arrest?not just talking, but also getting physical with us. But that includes fleeing. We’re not gung-ho on using it. Most of us, anyway.”
Perhaps most disturbing in the Amnesty International Report was that in the US and Canada, between 2001 and 2004, more than 70 people died in police custody within hours or days of being tasered. That number made a fantastic leap to 103 by March of 2005, and there have been at least two deaths in April 2005 that are not included in that figure.
While TASER International has repeatedly released reports to the press that indicate that in no instance has a TASER been proven to be a “direct cause” of a fatality, Amnesty International points out “some medical experts believe Taser shocks may exacerbate a risk of heart failure in cases where people are agitated or under the influence of drugs or have underlying health problems.”
In reviewing the information on 74 deaths reported since 2001?including autopsy reports on 21?Amnesty points out that nearly all the deaths occurred in males between 18 and 59 years old, of varying ethnic origin. Most of them involved the use of M26 Taser, which is used much more frequently than the newer X26. The majority of those who died following Taser shock had high quantities of drugs or alcohol in their systems, and “violent struggle, positional asphyxia and excited delirium were cited in some cases as a sole or contributory factor leading to sudden cardiac arrest.”
Most disturbing is that few of the people who died were engaged in violent criminal activity, which would normally be an assumption in deaths while in police custody.
“In only eleven cases were suspects reported to be armed,” notes the Amnesty report, adding “While most of the deceased had been engaged in disturbed or agitated behaviour, and some were reportedly combative during arrest, few appeared to pose an immediate threat of substantial physical harm at the time force was used.”
Several deaths occurred after suspects were tasered while passively resisting arrest or “refusing to comply immediately with an order.” Those deaths include James Borden, 47, a mentally disturbed man, who was tasered six times ? several administered while four officers pinned him down ? for refusing to step out of his shorts while being booked into a jail in Monroe County, Georgia. He died almost immediately.
Glenn Richard Leyba, 37, of Glendale Colorado was tasered five times while he lay on the floor of his home in a druginduced stupor. He died while being wheeled to an ambulance.
Gordon Randall Jones, 37, was jolted at least 12 times with a Taser after he’d been disruptive outside a hotel in Orange County, Florida “and refused to leave and pulled away from deputies.” After the twelfth taser zap, he accompanied officers to an ambulance, and died enroute to the hospital.
In all more than 25 deaths occurred to people with a history of mental illness; several others were “ill through drug intoxication,” and at least two who died had been tasered immediately following epileptic seizures.
These individuals were not involved in criminal behaviour at the time they were taken into custody. Amnesty International believes “the appropriate response in such cases should have been to seek medical attention or mental health crisis intervention, rather than a law enforcement response.” In a recent incident in Fort Worth, on Sunday, April 4, Eric Hammock, 43, an architect from a nearby Midland, drove into a waste management facility where an offduty Ft. Worth policeman was working as a security guard.
According to current Ft. Worth PD Public Information Officer Lt. Dean Sullivan, “the officer indicated to the man, Hammock, that the facility was not open to the public, and Hammock turned his car around and left.”
But a few minutes later, he was back, and the officer followed him in his own vehicle and told him to stop after radioing for backup.
Hammock then left his vehicle and started to flee on foot. The officer caught him but when Hammock began to swing at him the officer stepped back and dropped him with a Taser.
Other officers arrived and he was tasered again, then tackled and handcuffed. When they got him up he complained he couldn’t breathe, so they brought him to a hospital where he died 40 minutes later.”
The autopsy on Hammock hasn’t been completed, though it’s a reasonable guess that the use of the Taser won’t be cited as the cause of Hammock’s sudden heart failure.
Hammock’s family told CC that he had no history of mental illness. He’d been on his way home from a trip to Arkansas, and most likely had simply “made a wrong turn, then got lost and repeated it,” said Jackie Hammock, Eric Hammock’s aunt. “I would guess he just was looking for someplace to relieve himself.”
“We’re just as curious as you to find out why this guy died,” said Lt. Sullivan. “We’re treating it as a serious investigation. The important thing to remember when you’re talking about Tasers is that they are not nonlethal weapons. They are less-lethal weapons. That’s a big difference.”
TASER International would not discuss the issue of Tasers contributing to deaths with Cannabis Culture. But in a February 2004 letter to the ACLU of Colorado, TASER noted “If the electrical stimulation of the TASER device were to play a causal role in the death, the death would be immediate, and this has never happened.”
Despite the company’s refusal to discuss the issue, and their public stance that their products have not caused a single death, enough interest in the subject has been shown that a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor has been given a $500,000 grant by the US Dept. of Justice to look into the matter.
Professor Emeritus in biomedical engineering, John Webster has begun a twoyear study to test his hypothesis that Taserrelated deaths are the result of heart failure fueled by drug use and other medical factors, not by electrocution.
Webster’s researchers plan on utilizing three groups of 150-pound pigs. The first group will be given cocaine; the second will get cocaine and then be tasered; the third group will just be tasered. Thirty pigs will be sacrificed in all, but all the pigs will be anesthetized before being shocked, and then euthanised.
Webster recently told the Associated Press that he believes that some of the Taserrelated deaths were caused by a rare condition known as malignant hyper-thermia, in which bodies essentially overheat. Also, if a Taser-shock reaches the heart, muscle contractions release potassium into the blood stream, which can cause death.
Webster hopes his research will help set standards for how powerful Tasers should be, and provide guidelines for emergency room doctors on how to treat those who have been tasered.
Representatives from several police agencies around the country were questioned about the Webster study by CC, and though none would go on the record because it’s not their field of expertise, nearly all agreed: in real-life Taser situations which resulted in death, the elements of the initial struggle with the police, the fear of arrest, drug or alcohol intoxication. and the general level of excitement in those situations probably heightened the chances of heart failure.
“Add to that,” said one retired New York City lieutenant with over 30 years on the force, “that the guy just got shocked to shit and is in extreme pain, and you have a heartattack cocktail if ever there was one.”
Tasers and the Drug War
“In my experience,” says defense attorney Thomas Luka, “drug people are tasered more often than others, but the truth is that they tend to resist more. They tend to run, get upset and so forth.
“Still, introducing electricity into a body that’s already jacked up on cocaine or speed?well, boom! Heart failure. And while we’re not seeing it yet on a regular basis, you have to be careful about cops using these things on poor kids in inner cities. The thing is, cops just don’t have to interact anymore. The kid runs? Taser him.”
“There is some question of the use of Tasers at all,” says Jack Cole, retired Lieutenant with the New Jersey State Police, and the Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization of current and former members of law enforcement who support drug regulation rather than prohibition.
“Generally though, as a retired officer, I think that of all the non-deadly weapons Tasers are a pretty fair choice. But I don’t think they’re being used any more with drug violators than with anyone else. I’ve yet to see any accounts of Tasers being used in generalized pot sweeps or that sort of thing.”
We’ve also not seen a proliferation of Tasers in the hands of non-police thugs used as criminal tools, though that’s probably on its way as well, as TASER International has just introduced the X26c for use by private citizens.
Despite drug-users not being targeted as yet, without question, Taser use by some agencies is overboard to the point of criminality. Amnesty International’s November 30 report noted that in a study of 2,050 applications of Tasers nationwide produced for TASER International in November 2002, only 20 percent of the cases involved a suspect who was armed?and of those, only 4.8 percent had a firearm.
There is no national uniformed code for the use of Tasers among police agencies. Use regulations can often vary among different agencies in the same city. Unfortunately, as long as each agency uses them as it sees fit on the force continuum scale, and as long as new cities add Tasers to their arsenals, their misuse by bullying officers will certainly continue.