Denver Sheriff Case Study – Taser Use Against the Mentally Ill

Should the Denver Sheriff use a Taser on an individual who is inflicting harm to him/herself?

It increasingly appears the Denver Sheriff at least tolerates the practice if there is a physical violation jeopardizing the lawful order.1 See e.g. St. Germain v. Denver Department of Safety, Car. Serv. Bd. Appeal No. 24-14, available at: www.denvergov.org/portals/671/documents/hearings/st._germain_ned_24-14_decision.pdf (last accessed Dec. 4, 2014); or see the document in its entirety below.   The Denver Post is doing great research into this subject, and is finding more and more evidence that Sheriff Deputies are using Tasers more as weapon to attack, rather than defend.2 Noelle Phillips, Denver Sheriff Sargent Suspended for Stunning Mentally Ill Inmate, Denver Post, Dec. 10, 2014, available at: http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_27108405/denver-sheriffs-sergeant-suspended-stunning-mentally-ill-inmate.

Judging from the Taser reports, made available through a public records request, the Denver Sheriff does not discern when an inmate is only a threat to himself, versus an inmate who is a threat to others.  Furthermore, there does not seem to be a Taser best practices policy by the agency.

Digging a little bit deeper, I am going to look at the Denver Sheriff’s policy of Taser use against individuals who are an unarmed, and are only a threat to the individual himself, when the Deputies engage with the inmate.  In other words, inmates who appear to be mentally ill from the facts presented.  This will be the first part in a series of articles written on the subject here.

North Dakota National Guard

— Photo taken by North Dakota National Guard, Flickr.

Previously, I have written about this topic based upon the Denver Post’s public records request.3 Joe Thomas, Denver Sheriff Taser Mentally Ill, CoCommonLaw,    http://cocommonlaw.com/2014/11/denver-sheriff-taser-mentally-ill/ However, I did not have access to the public records themselves.  After filing for and receiving public records from the Denver Sheriff, on their taser reports for the past year, I am going to travel deeper into what is troubling about tasing someone who is in a self-injurious state.

This article will focus in on a single incident which occurred on Sept. 26, 2013 in the Downtown Denver Detention Center.

Facts involving Sgt. St. Germain Ordered Tasering

The facts of the matter are not in dispute.  The only question before the administrative hearing body is whether the Taser use is justifiable or not.

Inmate M, was suicidal.4 St. Germain v. Denver Department of Safety, Car. Serv. Bd. Appeal No. 24-14, at * 2,  available at: www.denvergov.org/portals/671/documents/hearings/st._germain_ned_24-14_decision.pdf (last accessed Dec. 4, 2014).   Already placed in a cell of the medical ward of the Downtown Correctional Facility, the inmate beat his head against the wall, ninety-six times in thirty  minutes.5 Id.   Efforts to try to talk the inmate down by Sheriff Deputies did not work.6 Id. At this point the inmate suffered injuries consisting of a gash and welts on his forehead, and was bleeding.7 Id.

Action was deemed necessary.

To prevent further injury to the inmate, Sheriff Deputy Sgt. Ned St. Germain, assembled  six deputies to place the inmate into a restraint chair.  Sgt. St. Germain instructed two of the six deputies, to use tasers upon command.

Before entering the cell, Sgt. St. Germain instructed the inmate to extend his hands through the door to be handcuffed.  But the inmate did not comply with the instruction.  After entering the cell Sgt. St. Germain ordered the inmate to kneel and place his hands behind his head.  Again, the inmate did not comply.

Sgt. St. Germain then ordered for the deputies to taser the inmate because of his non-compliance.

The deputies then assisted the inmate into the restraint chair where the wheeled him for medical treatment.

Use-of-Force reports later filed by the deputies stated the inmate never actively resisted, and sat on the cell bench during the entire incident.

Hearing Officer’s Conclusions on Taser Use

The Career Service Board Hearing Officer looked at two potential justifications given by Sgt. St. Germain as to why he ordered the use of the taser.

  • The inmate physically resisted a lawful order.8 Id. at 5.
  • To combat a physical threat – The inmate looked like he was ready to fight, based on the fact he was fighting himself (banging his head against the wall) and the way he was balled up on the bunk.9 Id. at 5.

Ultimately, the Hearing Officer concluded neither justification was merited.  This amounted to a violation of the Denver Sheriff’s Taser policy.

For all the violations that occurred, in addition to the Taser policy violation, Sgt. St. Germain was suspended for ten days.10 Id. at 1.

Unanswered Questions

There are many things that went wrong with the incident that ended up with Sgt. St. Germain giving the order for a mentally ill inmate to be tasered that are not explained by the Hearing Officer’s report.

1. What took so long for aid (the deputies) to respond?  Prison and jail are not supposed to be nice places.  A certain degree of discomfort or unpleasantness is to be expected in correctional facilities.  However, there is something wrong when there is no reaction for thirty minutes with an inmate violently bashing his head against the wall ninety-six times, or at a rate in excess of three times per minute.  Remember this man was already in the medical ward and stated to be suicidal before the head-bashing began.11 Id. at 2.   Maybe I am naive, but shouldn’t there be more supervision in the medical ward?  Perhaps by the time the deputies who did arrive, did not have success with talking to the inmate, was because his self-inflicted head wounds were so severe he could not communicate properly (via loss of blood, concussion, etc).  I think this is a fair point.  Thirty minutes is a lot of time wasted, especially in a medical ward.  With a quicker response the possibility of a positive outcome for all could have increased.

2. Also explained by the facts is why is there an absence of medical professionals  during this incident?  As noted above, this incident took place within the medical ward and curiously, no doctors, no nurses, nor EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians) are noted in the report as responding.12 Id. at 2.   This seems strange to me that no one with a medical background is mentioned anywhere in the report as being consulted or even in the area watching.  A person who worked in the medical ward would likely be more familiar with the inmate’s state of mind, and could possibly consult with the Sheriff Deputies on the best course of action for both the officers and the inmate.

It is important to note the situation was not devoid of personnel with mental health training.  The facts from the Hearing Officer’s report state a deputy had critical response training with “extensive experience in talking down violent inmates” unsuccessfully tried talking to the inmate.

This does not excuse the fact that a suicidal patient is having an incident in the medical ward, and no medical personnel are mentioned in the report.

Lingering Thoughts

1. What happened to the concern for the inmate’s safety?  Okay, if I understand this correctly the whole reason for the deputies to be there was for the inmate’s safety — if not, they simply could have let him bash his head until he died or passed out.  But the decision was made to intervene and try to help the inmate who is isolated in the medical ward, not threatening anyone else physically or verbally.  Then something changed while on the scene where at least Sgt. St. Germain seemed more concerned about his own safety than the inmate with the head injuries.  Sgt. St. Germain gave some reasons, discussed above, how the inmate physically resisted orders, and appeared threatening.  These reasons are unsatisfying and don’t explain why six Sheriff Deputies facing a single unarmed inmate had to make the immediate jump to a taser.  What happened with using a lower amount of force?  Even if Sgt. St. Germain is truly threatened by the inmate curled up in a ball on the bunk, what happened to pepper spray?

2.  There does not appear to be a Sheriff Department Orders regarding protecting inmate’s welfare.  Okay, so the excessive force Department Order gets to protecting inmate’s welfare, as well as some other Orders do indirectly.  While not all the Department Orders are known, I would venture a guess as there is not an order prioritizing inmate safety, especially in cases of self-inflicted harm, such as this. It would be highly inconsistent for the Hearing Officer’s decision to quote four other Department Orders and not even mention one about directly protecting an inmate’s welfare.

 

References   [ + ]

1. See e.g. St. Germain v. Denver Department of Safety, Car. Serv. Bd. Appeal No. 24-14, available at: www.denvergov.org/portals/671/documents/hearings/st._germain_ned_24-14_decision.pdf (last accessed Dec. 4, 2014); or see the document in its entirety below.
2. Noelle Phillips, Denver Sheriff Sargent Suspended for Stunning Mentally Ill Inmate, Denver Post, Dec. 10, 2014, available at: http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_27108405/denver-sheriffs-sergeant-suspended-stunning-mentally-ill-inmate.
3. Joe Thomas, Denver Sheriff Taser Mentally Ill, CoCommonLaw,    http://cocommonlaw.com/2014/11/denver-sheriff-taser-mentally-ill/
4. St. Germain v. Denver Department of Safety, Car. Serv. Bd. Appeal No. 24-14, at * 2,  available at: www.denvergov.org/portals/671/documents/hearings/st._germain_ned_24-14_decision.pdf (last accessed Dec. 4, 2014).
5.  Id.
6, 7. Id.
8, 9. Id. at 5.
10. Id. at 1.
11, 12. Id. at 2.

3 thoughts on “Denver Sheriff Case Study – Taser Use Against the Mentally Ill

  1. Great thoughts. the use of the taser was appropriate, it’s just thee bosses wanting to set the tone and ‘show’ they can come down hard on people. A cell extraction, dealing with the mentally ill and others are historically high injury events to either the officers or inmate. Passive non-compliance can quickly turn to aggressive resistance, especially with the mentally ill. So after several attempts to verbally obtain compliance, and given the inmates aggression, the taser was appropriately utilized and it worked as it should. Staff and inmate were without injury. If you go the other way and start taking control of the inmate and he begins resisting you need to use more force and increase the possibility of injury to someone. There is no right answer to this as we will never know what the inmate might have done when staff entered and begain taking control of him. The taser is a tool used to gain compliance and if not is a step below going hands on with persons.

    1. I certainly respect your opinion that the use of a Taser in this situation is warranted. I generally tend to be skeptical about the use of force, but understand that it is a necessary tool at times. I do not think I know as much as I would like about this situation to make a statement one way or another.

      I do feel comfortable saying, I do not think this situation was handled appropriately from a mental health standpoint. The person was already in the medical ward and it took 30 minutes to receive any help.

      Thank you for the comment!

      1. wish I knew more too but a person I trust in these matters indicates that the mentally ill who are ‘off there meds’ or self medicating i.e. drugs/alcohol are a challange as you never know what they are going to do as they can ‘act out’ in the blink of an eye and without warning. The person in question was more then likely being observed via camera and they were discussing options with medical personnel. He may have acted out because he wasn’t getting his way, which is common from what I’m told, in cases like this.

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