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Report: APD guilty of Taser abuse

Jonelle Ellis, left, whose brother was shot and killed by APD officers, and Sylvia Fuentes, whose son was shot and killed by APD, review DOJ findings Thursday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Jonelle Ellis, left, whose brother was shot and killed by APD officers, and Sylvia Fuentes, whose son was shot and killed by APD, review DOJ findings Thursday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

The number of officer-involved shootings in Albuquerque has been cited over and over as evidence that APD has a problem with the use of force against civilians.

But the U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday devoted a full seven pages of its 46-page report to the department’s use of Tasers.

DOJ investigators pointed at numerous examples of Taser use the agency found unreasonable: Officers using Tasers against a man who had doused himself in gasoline, setting him on fire; Tasers used against a 75-year-old man who needed a cane to walk; officers using Tasers against and kicking and beating a 25-year-old man who refused to put his hands to his sides before later learning that he had the mental capacity of a 5-year-old and had wandered from a group home.

“Although we found unreasonable uses of physical force, such as punches and kicks, the overwhelming majority of our use of force reviews involved inappropriate deployment of Tasers,” the DOJ letter said. “Officers engaged in a pattern of using Tasers unreasonably, including in situations that placed individuals at risk of death or serious bodily harm; against individuals experiencing mental health crises, or who, due to inebriation or inability, could not comply; against subjects requiring medical treatment; against unarmed subjects; and against individuals in a punitive manner.”

At a news conference Thursday, APD Chief Gorden Eden was asked whether he would consider reopening investigations into any of the incidents cited in the report. He said he would meet with the DOJ to discuss that and other topics.

The federal agency also focused more broadly on the department’s use of less-than-lethal force. The DOJ found that one-third of a randomly selected sample of 200 incidents between January 2009 and April 2013 were unreasonable, even though APD’s own supervisors found that less than 1 percent of the same incidents were outside the department’s policies.

“The disparity between our conclusions is striking and strongly suggests a pervasive and deliberate leniency in supervisory and oversight and accountability,” the report reads.

When it comes to Tasers, the DOJ said officers regularly used the devices against minimal or nonexistent threats from suspects. They also said officers ended up using the electroshock weapon against people on so-called “welfare check” calls, where they were arriving only to ensure that a person is not in crisis or at risk of harming themselves.

A01_jd_11apr_Justice report rippiesThese are among the examples included in the DOJ letter of Tasers being used unreasonably:

  • In September 2012, a sergeant and three officers arrived at a bus station because a 75-year-old man who required a cane to walk refused to leave, angry that he was not allowed to get on the bus. After an hourlong negotiation didn’t work, the man threatened employees and reached for his cane. Officers ordered him to drop the cane, but he tried to stand up and was shot in the stomach with a Taser, even though he posed little threat to officers and needed the cane to walk, investigators said. The use of force was later cleared and one supervisor praised the officers’ conduct as “exceptional.”
  • In December 2009, officers fired Tasers at a man who had doused himself in gasoline. After he was handcuffed, the man began hitting his head against the wall and kicking at officers. That’s when an officer used a Taser in “drive-stun” mode, meaning it was applied directly to his body, igniting his shirt. Another officer had to extinguish the flame, and the fire exposed the man and officers to “extreme danger,” the report said. The DOJ later pointed out in the report that APD’s own policies prohibit officers from using the weapon in “any environment where an officer knows that potentially flammable, volatile, or explosive material is present.” That use of force was determined to be “reasonable” by an APD supervisor and prompted no further investigation.
  • Just shy of 50 officers arrived at a scene in March 2009 after a man’s friend called to say the man was threatening him with a knife and a pellet gun. The man, who was intoxicated, ultimately complied with officers’ commands to drop the knife and walked outside unarmed. He stopped and began to turn, and officers struck him with beanbags, tossed a flash grenade, shot him with a canister of four wooden batons, penetrating his skin, and let loose a police canine that bit him. The man grabbed onto a nearby fence, prompting Taser bolts, before he finally collapsed. Officers carried him away, unconscious, “leaving behind a trail of blood and urine.”
  • In June 2011, a 22-year-old bicyclist failed to stop at several stop signs. An officer tried to stop him but he kept riding. An officer tried to grab him, but the man pulled away and he and the officer fell to the ground. A sergeant and another officer then fired their Tasers at the man. No charges were ever filed, and none of the officers, including the sergeant, had activated their lapel cameras or belt tapes.