Berkeley Copwatch Statement of Concern in Glenn County Case

April 12, 2011

April 12, 2011

 

Berkeley Copwatch has been following the Glenn County case of the Willows man, Justin Bentley, facing trial for allegedly attempting to murder police officer Kyle Cessna on March 13, 2010, and, in the most recent escalation, for alleged assault with a deadly weapon causing great bodily injury[1].

 

 As reported in the Willows Journal, defense attorneys have “questioned Cessna’s stated reasons for firing at a fleeing, unarmed man in a residential neighborhood[2].  According to Policeone.com, the officer fired three times at the fleeing man[3].  We also note that Bentley’s Attorney Grady Davis has publically stated his belief that “the officer used excessive force by discharging the firearm”[4].  Additionally, according to newspaper sources, police reports state that Bentley was Tasered repeatedly in a struggle involving several officers[5]. We are issuing this statement out of concern for the level of force used by the Orland Police Department and other law enforcement agencies in the incident involving Justin Bentley.

 

Firing at a fleeing, unarmed citizen

 

We are concerned with issues of excessive force on the part of law enforcement, including discharging of a weapon in a residential area to apprehend an unarmed fleeing subject (Bentley). We are concerned with policies that support police firing a weapon, and in this case repeatedly, at citizens who are running away and are not in possession of a weapon and thus pose no threat to officers or other citizens. In this case, Bentley is a citizen who has no history of violence, has a family that includes three small children, and is a respected member of his community.

 

Taser Use

 

We are also concerned about the reported use of Tasers in this case. Allegedly, Mr. Bentley was “stopped on suspicion of drunk driving”[6], and was then Tasered in the back, and multiple other times, including in the face and ear. Berkeley Copwatch maintains the position that Tasers are a lethal force; under specific circumstances the likelihood of fatality increases. Civil liberties groups nationally and locally record high fatality rates associated with repeated Taser shocks, including the ACLU of Northern California which cites an alarming number of deaths throughout California where law enforcement has repeatedly shocked civilians[7]. While not all repeated activations of the Taser on a person result it death, there is significant risk of severe bodily harm that increases with each activation. Some departments, including some federal departments and departments across California including Berkeley Police Department, have, under pressure, refused to add Tasers to their technology arsenal. Others have implemented strict standards because of the many and diverse risks associated with Tasers[8].

 

There is significant research indicating that when a person has alcohol in his/her system, the person is particularly vulnerable to cardiac arrest when Tasered; forensic pathologists have asserted that “alcohol may substantially increase the risk of fatality in Tasered people”[9] and that “the chance of death increases with each use” [of the Taser][10]. If there was reason to suspect that Mr. Bentley had been drinking, why was he Tased repeatedly? Additionally, forensic pathologists specifically discuss the dangers of Tasering people in the face, including this below from a study commissioned by Taser International in 2003:

 

The potential for significant injury exists for Taser barbs striking the eye, open mouth, neck, genitals, and large blood vessels in the groin…The Taser delivers electricity that incapacitates the subject and ends the physical, (and likely the psychological), resistance to arrest[11].

 

If the Taser incapacitates, and, if the subject has already been subdued, then repeated Tasering is punitive. The use of Tasers as weapon of punishment and compliance is an internationally recognized problem and civil liberties groups are speaking out. According to the Australian Council for Civil Liberties,

 

Tasers were supposed to be used only in life or death situations, but were increasingly deployed simply to force people to obey orders. Western Australia’s shadow attorney-general, John Quigley, said: “They’re using the Taser as a weapon of punishment. They’re using the Taser as a weapon of control. They’re using it as a weapon of compliance. It was never so intended [12].

 

We are gravely concerned that police and other law enforcement departments are relying on the Taser as a so called “less than lethal force weapon” to achieve compliance and obedience, or possibly as a mechanism of retaliation when a terrified citizen flees an arrest after the first deployment of the Taser.

 

According to the Valley Mirror, another man was Tased in Orland by law enforcement on the same night as Mr. Bentley was repeatedly Tased. Police officers Tased a man who was handcuffed in custody at the Orland Police Station when he stood up to adjust the handcuffs. The man, who had been arrested on suspicion of a misdemeanor, was Tased directly above the heart. He fell twice following the Tasing, and was then moved to Glenn County Jail without any medical assistance[13].

 

These cases are reminiscent of other Taser incidents in Glenn County, including recent reports of police Tasering a fleeing bicyclist for a minor infraction[13]. There is also the severe, even sadistic, incident involving Reynaldo Cabral in the Glenn County Jail in 2009. This case prompted demands on proper Taser procedure in the police departments in Glenn County[14]. Why are people being Tased when fleeing in Glenn County, if they have no weapon, and why are they being Tased when they are already detained in handcuffs or behind bars?

 

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled last year that if a suspect does not pose an immediate threat to the officer or a member of the public, police officers can be held liable for irresponsible Taser use. In the wake of this federal finding, law enforcement agencies can face civil and criminal action if the adequate standards of threat are not met. In the case of Bentley, we do not see how Tasering a fleeing suspect in the back meets the above criteria. Further, repeated Tasering, including to the face of an already subdued suspect places citizens at extreme risk, and is not in line with responsible, or intended use of “less-than-lethal force” as these policies have been adopted at the department level.

 

Berkeley Copwatch believes in community based police accountability. As citizens, we are entitled to transparency regarding the practices of law enforcement officers as well as the criminal justice system. Accountability, and transparency, lead to safer communities and allow honest officers to fulfill their duties more effectively and responsibly. We are issuing this statement of concern regarding the use of excessive force involving the repeated discharge of a firearm in a residential area, multiple activations of a Taser that we can only see as a punitive tactic of compliance, one that demonstrates blatant disregard for human life. We do not see the officer’s actions as an appropriate response to the situation as reported across various credible sources, nor do we see the officer’s perception of threat level to be appropriate to the incident as reported.

 

As a police accountability group, we are requesting an evaluation of Taser use policy among the participating law enforcement agencies in this incident, including explicit and publically stated designations by each department of what determines an appropriate and inappropriate use of Tasers by law enforcement in that department.

 

In the case of Mr. Bentley, this would involve a reassessment of the use of Tasers on people suspected to have been drinking, a reassessment of how to respond to people fleeing in terror after being Tasered in the back unexpectedly. It would also involve a reassessment of the inconsistencies in the various stories and conflicting details of this incident to determine what threat Mr. Bentley posed to the officers and/or other citizens.

 

We also issue this statement to support law enforcement, including police officers and members of the sheriff department, and to support citizen groups in Glenn County, as well as Attorney Grady Davis, in working to insure that Mr. Bentley receives a transparent investigation and fair trial, and that the issues raised around excessive force and Taser use be part of this investigation.

 

[1] Orland Press Register, March 22, 2011.

 

[2] Willows Journal, March 22, 2011.

 

[3] The story, “Fight with Calif. cop leads to attempted murder charge” originally appeared in the Oroville Mercury Register on March 17, 2010; See www.policeone.com/close-quarters-combat/articles/2020908-Fight-with-Calif-cop-leads-to-attempted-murder-charge/

 

[4] Colusa County Sun-Herald, May 12, 2010.

 

[5] Willows Journal, March 22, 2011.

 

[6] Orland Press Register, March 22, 2011.

 

[7] Stun Gun Fallacy: How the Lack of Taser Regulation Endangers Lives. American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California Taser Study. September 2005.

 

[8] Stun Gun Fallacy: How the Lack of Taser Regulation Endangers Lives. American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California Taser Study. September 2005.

 

[9] See for example, The Advanced Taser: A Medical Review. Bleetman and Steyn, 2003.

 

[10] The Progressive, September 1997. Studies by the British Government also point to the risk  of deploying Tasers on intoxicated people. See Stun Gun Fallacy: How the Lack of Taser Regulation Endangers Lives. American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California Taser Study. September 2005.

 

[11] www.taser.com/research/Science/Documents/Bleetman_TASER_safety.pdf

 

[12] www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/police-face-charges-for-using-taser-13-times-on-aboriginal-man-2098835.html

 

[13] “Orland man gets tazed“, Valley Mirror. Larry Judkins.March 17th, 2011.

 

[14] As reported in ChicoER, January 29, 2008.

 

[15] “Tasered, stunned and sprayed: What does it take to subdue a mentally ill man?” Chico News and Review, Robert Speer, January 29, 2009. www.newsreview.com/chico/content?oid=901218

 

[16] See “Did a Court Just Deal a Fatal Blow to Tasers for Police?”,  Alternet, January 10, 2010. www.alternet.org/rights/145039

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