Submitted by Brian Dolinar on February 6, 2007 - 6:31pm
No Weapon Can Replace Good Police Work: Response to Sheriff Dan Walsh’s Report On Tasers
Monday night, February 5, 2007, Sheriff Dan Walsh gave a report on Tasers to the Justice Committee of the Champaign County Board. Sheriff Walsh was on the defensive and at times indignant as he argued that the Taser is a “humane” weapon, even in spite of the discovery that 14-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department William Alan Myers had abused inmates with a Taser in the jail. In November 2003, the Sheriff’s Department purchased Tasers and they went into use a year later. He gave a previous report on Tasers in May 2004 and since his tune has not changed: Tasers are a useful weapon to protect officers and protect citizens. He echoed the Taser manufacturer’s own advertisements, “Tasers Save Lives.”
Several members of the community, organized by Chamaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice, spoke during the period for public comment at the beginning of the meeting. They included: Belden Fields, Professor Emeritus; Durl Kruse, member of AWARE; Giraldo Rosales, Champaign City Council member; Martel Miller, co-founder of VEYA; and myself. Others opposing Tasers sat with them.
There was also a dozen of the Sheriff’s Deputies who were present at the hearing.
When I spoke I held up the copy of the News-Gazette article from January 25, 2007 that featured a new experimental “non-lethal” weapon produced by the military. A large color photo showed a military jeep with a large radar on top that fires a ray beam making anyone in its range feel like their skin is on fire. The bold headline read, “Feel the Burn.” I attempted to make the case that the market for such 21st century technology was laid by another “non-lethal” weapon – the Taser.
Community members called for an immediate moratorium on Taser use in Champaign County and the formation of an independent study into Tasers and the conditions in the local jail. I cited a precedent for such intervention in Houston, Texas where Taser use has been hotly debated. There was outrage in November 2006, when a lineman for the Houstan Texans was tased during a routine traffic stop. It was also found that 63 percent of Taser victims were African American (the number is 64 percent in Champaign County), and that in 95 percent of incidents, suspects were unarmed. Houston Mayor Bill White, who had previously been a supporter of Tasers, called for an independent investigation. Additionally, several city council members have called for a moratorium on Taser use. An independent investigation is long overdue in Champaign County. Over a two year period, five deaths have occurred in the county jail and the abuse of inmates by Sgt. Myers has been exposed.
The Sheriff then gave his presentation, complete with projected video clips, show-and-tell products provided by the prison industrial complex, and expert advice from Deputies who deal with training and recording Taser usage.
Walsh began with an anecdotal story from Darlene Dallas, who had spoken in May 2004 at Walsh’s last report to the board. Apparently, no other such supporters of Tasers could be found among the public. Dallas was there to tell her story again. She said she was not a professor, or an expert, she was “just a mom.” But she said she was also there on behalf of officers in the field. While she told her story, she turned and gave angry stares at community members. Dallas was involved in the first incident when a Taser was used in Champaign County. Her ex-husband had come to her house intoxicated and trapped himself in the bedroom with their two children, who were nine and two years old. He had told police, “If you want me you’ll have to go through me.” Police tried to talk to the man for twenty minutes, then resorted to using the Taser, which they had to use twice to subdue the man. Dallas said they could have used guns or billy clubs. Dallas did not address that her ex-husband was unarmed and that the police officers’ lives were not in danger. If her children would have been shot, the cops would have been doing the shooting. Her message was the same as the Sheriff’s: “Tasers save lives.”
Sheriff Walsh submitted a 15 page report to the board stating updates in Taser policy. He said the new policy stipulated that Deputies not use a Taser on pregnant women. This was because of the harm that could be caused during the fall – not, he specified because the Taser causes harm to a fetus.
A cursory search on the internet suggests otherwise. Most recently, in Wichita, Kansas, a woman had a miscarriage that she says was linked to her being tased. She is suing the city.
Walsh gave his own anecdotal story of how he was in Las Vegas vacationing last month and read about Tasers in the local newspaper. A suicidal man had been shot to death by police and one Joe Public was quoted as saying, “Why didn’t the police use a Taser?” Another question might be, “Where have all the public monies gone for mental health care?”
County Board members were then shown two video clips projected onto a screen with the help of another Deputy. One showed an defendant who became violent in the courtroom and required several officers to tackle him. Another clip showed a man in a booking area without handcuffs and began swinging at officers. Walsh said a Taser would bring these situations under control “without anybody getting hurt.”
The dream is that with Tasers, officers will not even have to touch criminals, that they will have a sanitary situation where they have to do nothing but pull a trigger. Of course, even with a Taser officers are going to have to use some physical force and may have to take a punch. Yet this is what police are paid to do, it goes with the turf. Police are well paid, have benefits, job security, even a powerful union, which is more than can be said of most of working class people, the very same people who often pass through the criminal justice system.
Then Walsh showed a video, which looked like it was provided from Taser International, of a woman being shot with a Taser. This was to illustrate how the barbed hooks from a Taser did not significantly penetrate the skin of their target. When he was meeting with the press, I asked Walsh whether the impact is the same at 15 feet or point blank. He did not answer my question.
In an interview with Michael Alexander, one of Sgt. Myers’ victims, he gives a bloody account of having the Taser barbs pulled from his skin:
“Officer Myers gives a direct order to [Officer] Thompson, take the prongs out of him. Officer Thompson comes in and he’s slowly picking, trying to take the taser little thingys up out of my chest, but I was so close range that it was like stuck. I mean, I mean, I felt like it was stuck in my rib cage, man. I’m a little boy guy, so… he was just that close to me and it’s that powerful that it must have went in pretty, pretty far where he couldn’t just snatch them out….. So they had, Officer Thompson couldn’t do it because while he’s trying do it because while he’s trying to pull them out, I’m yelling. I’m like, ahhh, ahhh, that hurts, so Myers like, man, you just got to snatch them out, man, you just got to snatch them. So I said, no, I prefer for Officer Winters to take them out. I was like, Winters, man, I’m, I’m just holding on to you, man. Just snatch them out, just snatch them out. It hurts like fuck. Officer Winters snatches them out. I get to bleeding all over the place.”
This account is partially confirmed in a police report by Officer Winters written on November 12, 2005:
“Resident Alexander took a step toward the door, Sgt. Myers opened the door and fired the Taser into the cell 1A26 with out warning and struck Resident Alexander in the torso area. Once Resident Alexander fell to the ground Sgt. Myers told him to put his hands behind his back. This R/O placed handcuffs on resident Alexander. This R/O then removed the probes from Resident Alexander, and escorted him to booking […]. While in Cell H-1 I cleaned Resident Alexander and bandaged up the marks on his torso.”
Another one of Sgt. Myers’ victims, Trina Fairley, was examined by a nurse in a written report titled, “County Jail Medical Progress Notes,” and dated November 22, 2005. Fairley was tasered on September 19, 2005, two months earlier. The report includes drawings of an infected scar one centimeter wide and reads:
“There is a scar left breast from when she was tasered. There is no pain at this time. Scar seen on side of left breast the shape of a circle. Lump left scab present. Sign of infection seen. Appears to be a scar from an injury.”
The video shown by Sheriff Walsh claimed there was no deep penetration from Tasers.
Next, Walsh brought up Sgt. Brian Mennenga, who is responsible for Taser reports and records. Mennenga explained how Deputies are trained for a week, have experience firing Tasers, and learn how to deal with mentally challenged. He gave two more anecdotal stories when a Taser was used and concluded, “Nobody’s hurt. Everybody goes home safely.”
Mennenga had checked out a Taser to Myers the night he abused Ray Hsieh, the case for which he is being prosecuted. Myers boasted of using the Taser but Mennenga did not second guess if Myers used the Taser unsafely. Mennenga wrote in his report:
“At some point during our conversation Sgt. Myers also made a remark similar to ‘it seems like I am the only one with enough balls to use the Taser.’ He also told me that they had to use the Taser on the subject after he had been pepper sprayed.
“I did not ask Sgt. Myers the circumstances as to why the subject had to have the Taser used on him and he did not offer that information.”
Captain Tim Voges gave two examples from incidents that occurred before November 2004, when the Sheriff’s Department started using Tasers. He ended by saying that Tasers make police work safe for officers and citizens.
“We’re not the cowboys,” Walsh began his speech. He downplayed accounts that Tasers has caused deaths. He pointed Amnesty International who claims that 230 people have died from Tasers since 2001 and said that’s “Nowhere near the number.”
How many should die before Tasers are believed to be lethal weapons?
Walsh defended himself, eschewing community members who, he says, don’t like the way the investigation was done and thought he was covering things up. He said if this happened to him, apparently talking about what Myers did to several inmates, he would go to lawyers and doctors to file a law suit.
In fact, that’s just what Michael Rich did. Rich was Myers’ first Taser victim on November 6, 2004. According to Rich, he filed a complaint the day he was released and went to see a Dr. Goldstein in northern Chicago. He also had a conversation with local attorney Michael McLellan. Rich was considered a civil suit, but trusted that the criminal prosecution would punish Sgt. Myers. On August 25, 2005, Rich finally received a response from his complaint to the Sheriff. A letter from Captain Young, in charge of the jails, determined the force used on Rich was “justified.” Myers was fired four months later. But Rich was never called by the State’s Attorney until November 2006 when the statute of limitations on his civil suit ran out. Charges were never filed against Myers for his abuse of Rich.
Walsh reiterated his position on the jail suicides and two other deaths.
He also said Champaign County has the best mental health in all Illinois.
Although not saying her name, Sheriff Walsh alluded to Sandra Ahten and his willingness to allow her Books to Prisoners project in the County jail. If he was hiding things, he said, he wouldn’t let her in the jail. Of course, the Books to Prisoners library is a terrific volunteer effort, but they provide a free service that should already financially supported by the County.
Walsh said that Mr. Myers is “very troubling,” but claimed he could not speak on him because the case was pending. Walsh alleged there were no citizen complaints about Sgt. Myers. This is flatly wrong. Michael Rich, Trina Fairley, and Michael Alexander all filed citizen complaints.
At one point when fielding questions from board members, he called me out. “Ask Brian. Don’t you have all the police reports,” he said. Of course, Walsh was not answering any questions from the public that night, especially not from Brian Dolinar.
While he would prefer to build a new jail, Walsh said cameras installed in the booking area would be a start. Yet none of Myers’ abuses occurred in the booking area. Walsh said he had ordered cameras that can be attached to the Tasers. The public must instead insist that:
NO WEAPON CAN REPLACE GOOD POLICE WORK!
For more information see the Sheriff’s investigation in the court file on Myers, 05-CF-2105.