Muscogee County Jail officials changed guidelines after questionable tasings
Jun 09, 2012 (Columbus Ledger-Enquirer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- When aimed at an unruly inmate, the laser sight of a Taser gun can go a long way toward keeping the peace in the unpredictable confines of the Muscogee County Jail. The devices have drastically reduced officer and inmate injuries over the past decade, sheriff's officials say, often without firing a single electrical shock.
But the Taser's red dot warning had little effect on two inmates with mental health issues in 2010. Both men were tased more than 10 times in incidents that raised eyebrows through the Sheriff's Office chain of command and underscored new training needs, according to interviews and a review of dozens of internal documents.
The tasings prompted sheriff's officials to recalibrate their approach to using Tasers in the jail. With guidance from the Department of Justice, the jail's use of force policy has been rewritten, and an expedited reporting requirement was put in place to increase accountability.
The role of the DOJ in the changes highlights the department's continued monitoring of the jail some 13 years after the Columbus Consolidated Government entered into an agreement with the federal government to improve conditions. Sheriff's officials say they're drawing close to resolving the consent decree, and have set their sights on jail accreditation.
Dane Collins, the jail commander, said federal officials who reviewed the tasings in 2010 "weren't very pleased," and recommended changes to an ambiguous use of force policy. The Department of Justice declined to comment on the tasings.
"The changes that you see now are a result of DOJ viewing these incidents, as well as incidents around the country," Collins said in an interview. "Had we not been under a consent order and these got to DOJ prior, we probably would have been." The first tasing happened Feb. 18, 2010, when Sgt. Cynthia Zeisloft confronted James C. Williams in Cell 519. A familiar face in the jail who had been arrested the day before on cocaine and obstruction charges, Williams was masturbating in front of officers during laundry distribution.
Zeisloft ordered him out of the cell, but Williams ignored repeated commands and warnings and was tased in the back as he wandered away. Instead of cuffing him when he hit the floor, Zeisloft ordered Williams to get up and leave the cell block -- and that's when things got messy.
"I felt like he was leading me into that room," Zeisloft recalled in an interview. "That's when I realized I'm not going to be able to fight this guy on my own. I knew I wouldn't, so I put in my head he's going to get tased if he doesn't listen, and he didn't. And it just escalated from there." Video recorded on Zeisloft's Taser camera shows Williams being tased 11 times -- about 74 seconds of intermittent exposure -- before deputies gained the upper hand and handcuffed him. Sheriff's officials deemed the use of force justified.
But experts who reviewed the footage and related documents for the Ledger-Enquirer were deeply divided on the reasonableness of Zeisloft's actions, with one likening the episode to torture and another saying it seemed an "underutilization" of force.
"Granted, most people would find the video troubling because most people would find any use of force situation troubling," said Greg Meyer, a retired Los Angeles Police Academy captain. "It usually isn't very pretty." The Zeisloft video has emerged amid a political campaigning season in which Sheriff John Darr has claimed the jail "is in the best shape that it ever has been." Former Sheriff's Lt. Pam Brown, who is running against Darr in the July 31 Democratic primary, said a supporter requested a copy of the video from the Sheriff's Office. (The Ledger-Enquirer obtained the video after filing an Open Records Act request.) But while Brown found the tasing to be excessive, she said she doesn't intend to use the video in her campaign.
"If I wanted to bring out everything in the Sheriff's Office that's wrong, I don't need a videotape," she said.
Federal guidance Columbus agreed in 1999 to sweeping changes to stem jail overcrowding and to remedy the "egregious" conditions the feds discovered in the mid-1990s. The jail was dangerously understaffed in those days, and inmates often were segregated by race, a practice then-Assistant Attorney General Deval L. Patrick condemned as "deplorable." The Department of Justice has monitored conditions in the jail ever since. Collins said the department's recent use of force recommendations weren't forced upon the jail, and that sheriff's officials already had identified the tasings as "problematic" and discussed potential changes.
"We have been inclined to accept their advice on most issues as they employ nationally recognized corrections experts to accompany them on their compliance tours," Collins said.
Justice officials identified ambiguities in the use of force policy, Collins said, which stated that Tasers could be used as a "defense or compliance weapon." "When they looked at our policy, they said the issue was not what happened," Maj. Randy Robertson said of the tasings. "The issue was what policy was there that allowed that to happen." New policy makes clear that Tasers aren't to be used as punishment or in an attempt "to gain compliance from inmates that are non-compliant by passively resisting verbal commands." New use of force reporting, meanwhile, requires supervisors independently interview inmates and witnesses instead of merely rubber-stamping a deputy's account.
"You have to put a time limit on things like that because of the seriousness of use of force," said Chief Deputy John L. Fitzpatrick Jr., who requires the reports be placed on his desk within seven days.
In making changes in the jail through the years, sheriff's officials say they're closer to coming out of the consent decree. A DOJ official said substantial progress has been made, but improvements still are needed in areas such as mental health services.
"We're hoping we can get out of all or part of it," City Attorney Clifton C. Fay said of the decree, which allows the feds to seek court action against the city if certain standards aren't met. "They're coming back in August to revisit the jail." Internal concerns Six Taser guns are located in the jail and may be worn on the hip of shift supervisors. Deputies who use them must be certified and have been tased.
Collins said emphasis has been placed on avoiding tasings, but they actually increased -- from five tasings in 2010 to seven in 2011 -- after the new guidelines took effect. Both years marked an increase from the three tasings in 2009, Darr's first year in office. Tasers were used three times this year through June 1.
Jail officials say the most telling Taser statistics are the reductions in injuries.
"I feel comfortable in saying 80 percent and higher," Robertson said.
Tasers fire prongs that pierce clothing and skin to deliver an electrical charge that immobilizes a person through "neuromuscular incapacitation." But law enforcement officials say the device often is an effective deterrent as soon as it's unholstered.
"Most people that are confronted with the possibility of having the Taser deployed on them generally don't want any part of it," Collins said. "But given the jail environment, there are several issues that make deploying a Taser in a jail problematic.
"The Taser is not an ideal tool for use in a jail," he added, noting the close quarters of the cells, "but it's the best thing that's available on the market for us today." In an email to sheriff's officials, Fitzpatrick wrote that the "Taser is a great tool when used properly, but on the other hand it is litigation in waiting if not used correctly." It's clear that sheriff's officials had concerns about the Zeisloft incident and a second prolonged tasing that happened in June 2010 when Sgt. Roman Jones tased inmate Wraith Calhoun 13 times. Calhoun ripped the Taser probes from his chest, prompting Jones to use the Taser's "drive stun" mode -- in which the device is held against the body -- a pain compliance technique that many experts say has limited effectiveness.
Like Williams' tasing, sheriff's officials questioned whether Calhoun could have been detained with fewer Taser shocks. But the tasing also was found to be justified given the aggressive stance Calhoun took in engaging the sergeant.
Robertson took exception to the profanity used by deputies in both tasings. Jones can be heard telling Calhoun after the final stun, "You wanna f--- with me. I don't give a s--- about you." "The commands and statements made at the end of Sgt. Jones' tasing left me with the concern that we are developing a mentality of challenging the aggressor instead of just responding to the resistance that is offered by the inmate or suspect," Robertson wrote in an inter-office memorandum.
Jones and Zeisloft underwent additional Taser training that focused on de-escalation and cuffing tactics. Zeisloft said she also was suspended without pay for two days, largely for cussing.
Williams, the inmate who masturbated in front of officers, lost privileges for two weeks. A "predeprivation" hearing found he was taking Prozac but hadn't received his medication since his arrest.
Zeisloft said she would handle the situation the same way if it arose again.
"If it was the exact same circumstances, ... there's nothing I would change because I'm not knowing what this person is thinking or how he may react," she said in an interview.
Mixed reviews Before her run-in with Williams, Zeisloft had used her Taser only one other time -- to deter a man who was "beating up a nurse" at St. Francis Hospital. She hasn't used it since, she said, even though she "probably should have used it" a couple of times.
"Now I try to be more careful with the Taser," she said.
When Zeisloft encountered Williams in February 2010, she said she "wasn't going out to go tase some guy for the day." "If he hadn't escalated it," she added, "we would have been just fine." Experts differed on whether Williams offered passive or active resistance, often an important distinction in determining whether Taser use is appropriate.
"Passive resistance means no energy is being expended toward the officers or any other person -- he's just being a pain in the neck," said R. Paul McCauley, a former police officer and criminology professor emeritus at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. "Let's assume it was OK to tase him the first time. He goes to the floor eventually. At that point, that's where physical control and restraint -- handcuffs -- should have been applied in my opinion." Barbara J. Attard, a police practices consultant and former president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said "the number of uses of the Taser was just astounding," and that some of the later stuns appeared to be "gratuitous." "My real concern was that he was not offering any active resistance," she said of Williams. "He seems more dazed and confused than even actively disobeying the sergeant's orders." Sheriff's officials said one of the Taser probes apparently became detached from Williams during the scuffle.
Jeffrey A. Martin, a former San Jose (Calif.) Police Department sergeant and use of force expert, said Zeisloft wasn't out of line, "especially when you look at the number of warnings she gave him." "Sometimes the only thing -- because of the size of the person and how violent they can get -- that's allowing you to keep the status quo in the situation is to keep applying the Taser, because that's how nasty these fights get," Martin said. "What I was seeing was someone who was just trying to apply a little bit of force in a good faith effort to obtain his compliance." The experts disagreed on whether sheriff's officials went far enough in amending the use of force policy, which now says other options should be considered when a Taser appears to be ineffective.
"The new policy is better than the old policy because it requires deputies to consider alternate force options before using the Taser on certain classes of people, including the mentally ill," said Meyer, the retired Los Angeles police captain.
The policy also encourages deputies to consider other options before tasing pregnant and elderly inmates.
But Attard said the guidelines could have included a limit on how many times a Taser may be used in an incident. Some agencies have set a limit of three.
"You don't want officers to be using them in situations where somebody is just not listening or didn't hear or understand the commands," she said.
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