Tuesday, September 22, 2009

California local police Taser an unarmed wheelchair-using amputee

From the Merced Sun-Star in California:

The Merced Police Department's Internal Affairs Division is investigating a complaint alleging that an officer twice used a Taser against an unarmed, wheelchair-bound man with no legs.

The incident occurred Sept. 11.

The man who was Tasered, 40-year-old Gregory Williams (pictured), a double-leg amputee, spent six days in jail on suspicion of domestic violence and resisting arrest, although the Merced County District Attorney's Office hasn't filed charges in the case.

Williams, who was released from jail Friday, said he was violently manhandled and Tasered by police, even though he claims he was never physically aggressive toward the officers or resisted arrest.

Even worse for him, Williams says he was publicly humiliated after his pants fell down during the incident. The officers allegedly left him outdoors in broad daylight, handcuffed on the pavement, nude below the waist. Williams said the arrest also left him with an injured shoulder, limiting his mobility in his wheelchair.

And although the two lead arresting officers are white, and Williams is black, it remains unknown whether race was a factor in the incident. Those two officers remain on duty.

Williams said the officers never used any racial epithets toward him. Although he does believe race and class played a role in his arrest, he also feels the police just wanted to be "downright nasty" to him. "They did what they did because they can get away with it," he said. "They've been doing it so long, it doesn't matter who they do it to. They just think they can get away with it."

A handful of residents who live in Williams' apartment complex claim they witnessed the incident and support Williams' charges. A short video clip, shot by a neighbor in the complex and obtained by the Sun-Star, clearly shows Williams sitting on the pavement with his pants down, his hands cuffed behind his back.

A Merced police report obtained by the Sun-Star tells a somewhat different story from that of Williams. The report, written by the responding officers, suggests that police had tried to reason with Williams before the arrest, to no avail. The officers wrote in the report that Williams was uncooperative and refused to turn over his 2-year-old daughter to Merced County Child Protective Services, among other allegations.

In the report, police also say a hostile crowd had gathered as the officers attempted to perform their duties.

The Merced Police Department's spokesman officially declined to comment on the matter, saying he can't legally speak about it because of the internal investigation.

The Sun-Star interviewed Williams and several neighbors who said they witnessed his arrest.

Tasers have become more controversial as they're more widely used by law enforcement. Proponents, including most U.S. law enforcement agencies and related foundations, say the weapon allows officers to control suspects and criminals without resorting to deadly force, pepper spray or batons. The stun guns, which transmit up to 50,000 volts of electricity, are supposed to disable a suspect or criminal for several seconds so officers can handcuff or otherwise control him. Tasers have become popular over the last decade, and more than 12,400 police departments worldwide use them.

Opponents blame Tasers for more than 150 deaths in the U.S. in recent years. A 2005 report by the American Civil Liberties Union claims that the weapon is "largely unregulated." In a survey of more than 50 departments across central and northern California, the ACLU concluded that "in the absence of strong regulations on how police use the weapon, we are likely to see more unnecessary deaths."

The Law Enforcement Alliance of America called the ACLU report "junk science." Law enforcement agencies typically blame Taser-related deaths on other factors, such as the possible lethal presence of illegal drugs, pre-existing medical conditions or stress stemming from violently resisting arrest. A Fox News story last year quoted a study by the city of Houston that concluded its police officers used Tasers more often on black suspects than any other group between 2004 and 2007.

Three inmate deaths in the last five months have occurred in Stanislaus County Jail after corrections officers used Tasers to subdue prisoners. Last year, Merced County agreed to pay $650,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of an inmate who died after a struggle involving correctional officers who used a Taser at the Merced County Jail.

An afternoon to remember

Williams, a life-long Mercedian who's married with three children, said both his legs were amputated in 2004 after he was diagnosed with a serious case of deep-vein thrombosis. The condition led to gangrene in both legs.

Doctors amputated each of his legs below the knee when he was 34. Now, only withered stumps of skin exist where his lower legs once were. Williams said losing his legs was life-changing. He lost his job as a truck driver and was forced to adjust to life as an amputee. He now supports himself and his family from a Social Security allotment of $1,004 a month, from his disability.

While Williams and his wife have a 2-year-old daughter, Ginni, together, his 11-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son live with other family members.

Fast-forward to the afternoon of Sept. 11, a day Williams says he'll "always remember."

Between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., Williams said he and his wife, 28-year-old Demetrice Shaunte Phifer, were involved in a verbal argument when a marked Merced Police Department patrol car arrived at the couple's apartment, at 2355 K Street.

While one officer spoke with his wife, Williams said another officer arrived at the scene and ordered him to "go back to your house!" Williams, who held his 2-year-old daughter in his lap, said he rolled his wheelchair back to his apartment.

The officer, who Williams said he couldn't remember by name, but is identified in the police report as Officer John Pinnegar, approached him in the doorway of his studio apartment. Pinnegar said his wife had accused him of striking her, which Williams denied.

Shortly afterward, Sgt. Rodney Court and a worker with Merced County Child Protective Services came to his apartment, Williams recalled. "I'm trying to tell him nothing happened. We were just having an argument," he said.

Williams said the officers told him he was being arrested. "Arrested for what? What did I do?," Williams said he asked the officers.

Events went south fast. Pinnegar grabbed William's 2-year-old daughter from his lap, handing her to the CPS worker. "I said, 'What are you doing? I haven't done anything!'" Williams recalled.

Williams said Pinnegar, who was positioned behind the wheelchair, grabbed him by his left arm, pulling it backward behind his head. To prevent himself from falling out of his wheelchair, Williams said he grabbed the side of his wheelchair with his right hand. "I wasn't resisting. I was hanging on, so I wouldn't fall out and bust my head open. They weren't caring what was going to happen to me when I hit that ground, and I knew it," Williams said.

Williams said Pinnegar unholstered his Taser and jammed it into his rib cage on the left side of his body, shocking him twice. Williams said he fell from his chair on his stomach, onto the ground outside of the doorway in front of his apartment. During the struggle, Williams said one of the officers placed a handcuff on his right wrist.

While he was down on the ground, Court put his knee on Williams' neck, Williams said. One of the officers then cuffed both of Williams' wrists, he said. At some point after falling out of his chair, Williams said his shorts slid down his legs. With his hands cuffed behind his back, Williams said he was helpless and unable to pull his pants back up. He said police left him for five to 10 minutes on the pavement in that position, with his genitals showing, as neighbors and onlookers watched the scene unfold.

William Decker, a relative of Williams who witnessed the arrest, said he was appalled by what he saw. Williams is the brother-in-law of Decker's wife from her previous marriage. "The tenants were screaming 'Pull his pants up! Give him some dignity!'" Decker recalled.

Decker said he noticed Williams was bleeding from his mouth during the incident. Williams said he's unsure of why he was bleeding from his mouth. There are specks of blood present on the collar of the blue shirt he was wearing that day.

Dozens of police respond

Eventually, Williams said a detective uncuffed him, and someone pulled his pants up before paramedics attended to him. Dozens of police responded to the apartment complex as a small crowd of onlookers and residents gathered.

Williams was taken to Mercy Medical Center Merced and treated for a shoulder injury, which Williams claims was a result of the officer pulling back his arm. A diagnostic imaging report from the hospital states that although there's no fracture or dislocation on Williams' left shoulder, he may have an underlying rotator cuff tear.

Williams' left arm is in a sling. Without both arms, he said he'd be unable to move his wheelchair without help until his shoulder heals, which could take weeks.

Police took Phifer, Williams' wife, into custody during the incident on an outstanding $10,000 misdemeanor warrant for domestic violence.

A tenant in the apartment complex, 36-year-old Clifton Alexander Allison, was also arrested on suspicion of carrying an illegal weapon (a double-bladed folding knife) and with resisting arrest.

After being treated, Williams was taken to the John Latorraca Correctional Center, where he spent six days in a dorm with older inmates. He was released from jail Friday around noon, after the Merced County District Attorney's Office decided not to file charges against him.

Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said his office rejected Williams' case because there wasn't enough evidence to file charges. "While we do not doubt the officers may have had probable cause in arresting Mr. Williams, in our view we would not likely obtain a conviction in a jury trial," Morse said. "We are ethically precluded from filing any case in which we do not believe we have a likelihood of securing a conviction."

Williams said he's not surprised the District Attorney's Office didn't file charges because he maintains he did nothing wrong. While Williams said he was concerned about the officers taking his daughter away from him, he insisted that never posed a threat to police.

Other than having his daughter taken away, Williams said the worst result of the incident was being subjected to the public embarrassment of being handcuffed on the ground with his pants down, in full view of apartment residents.

Recounting the experience, Williams broke into tears. "How much resisting am I going to do with no legs? No feet?" he wept. "It's ridiculous what they did to me. How far am I gonna run? Where am I gonna go?"

Probable cause -- or excessive force?

The Merced Police Department was prompted to conduct an internal investigation into Williams' Tasing after Decker filed a complaint with the department on Sept. 14.

Decker said he spent the weekend disgusted by what he'd just seen and felt he had to step forward.

The former owner of "Big Will's Barbecue" restaurant in Atwater, Decker said he wanted to intervene to help Williams, but feared he'd be the next to be Tased -- or worse. "He didn't fight. He didn't hit anybody. Nothing," Williams said.

Cmdr. Floyd Higdon, spokesman for the Merced Police Department, said he couldn't comment on any specific details about the incident, citing the internal investigation.

Although Higdon said the officers involved remain on-duty, he said the department is taking the internal investigation and the allegations seriously.

"We want to get to the bottom of it," Higdon said. "We want to make sure we're doing the right thing for the right reasons. But like any case, we need to keep an open mind."

In the police reports filed by Court and Pinnegar, details surrounding the incident differ somewhat from Williams' account.

According to the report filed by Pinnegar, he arrived at the K Street apartment at 3:27 p.m. to investigate a call about a fight in progress.

Phifer told the officer that she'd been in an argument with Williams, who punched her about three times in the stomach with a closed fist. Phifer told Pinnegar she had no physical injuries.

Pinnegar walked over to talk with Williams, who acknowledged the couple had been in an argument about their 2-year-old. When asked if he'd struck Phifer, Williams denied it, according to Pinnegar's report.

While Pinnegar was talking with Williams, a CPS worker arrived at the scene, telling the officer she'd received information from an "anonymous citizen" that there was domestic violence happening at Phifer's and Williams' apartment, and that there was drug use in front of "the children."

According to the report, Williams then became "extremely upset" because CPS was at his doorstep. Pinnegar and Court told Williams that it would "be in his best interest" if he allowed the CPS worker to search his home, to ensure that it was an "adequate place for the child to be raised," the report said.

Williams told the officer he was no longer going to talk with them, saying that "he knew his rights."

After Pinnegar told Williams he was going to "have to take him into custody for misdemeanor domestic violence," Williams replied that he wasn't going to allow anyone to take his child.

Court went to Williams' right side and "grabbed his right arm into a rear wristlock," according to the report. Williams began to yell, "You're not taking me to jail! You're not taking my kid!"

Pinnegar grabbed Williams' left arm, which he had wrapped around his daughter, pulled the child away and handed her to the CPS worker.

"After removing Williams' arm from the child, he then grabbed his wheelchair and refused to comply with our orders," Pinnegar wrote in the report.

Pinnegar then told Williams if he didn't comply, he was going to shock him with his Taser. "Williams continued to yell and scream that he wasn't going to jail. I removed my Taser from the left side of my utility belt and removed the cartridge. I then activated my Taser and applied it to the left shoulder of Williams. After Tasing Williams, he began to comply and I was able to grab his left arm," Pinnegar's report stated.

Court, in his report, said he tried to explain to Williams that he had no intention of taking him or his daughter. He wrote that he only wanted him to cooperate with Pinnegar and the CPS worker "so that we could get the information that was needed and leave."

In the report, Court said his efforts to "verbal judo" a belligerent Williams into cooperating failed, as Williams yelled profanities and refused to comply.

As for Williams' disability, Court said he and Pinnegar were "extremely careful" in handling him, putting Williams' arms behind his back before carefully removing his daughter. Court's report stated the officers "did this without even having (Williams) come out of his chair."

Neither Court nor Pinnegar mentioned in their reports that Williams allegedly fell out of his chair. Nor do the reports mention how Williams was allegedly handcuffed on the pavement with his pants down. While Williams said he remembered being Tasered in the rib-cage, Pinnegar stated in his report that he applied the Taser to Williams' shoulder.

As the officers began taking Williams into custody, a crowd of 10 to 15 people began to approach the police. A member of the crowd, Clifton Allison, walked toward Pinnegar, yelling, "Leave him alone you [bleeping] bitch," the report said.

Pinnegar placed the cartridge back into his Taser, pointed it at Allison and called police dispatch to request backup units. Although Pinnegar instructed Allison to back away, he continued to come toward the officer, shouting to leave Williams alone.

More officers arrived, and Allison was placed in a patrol car "due to the fact he was enticing other people in the area while we were trying to take Williams into custody," Pinnegar wrote in his report.

Court wrote in his report that the only visible injury on Williams was a cut to his lip, which "appeared to be self-inflicted," possibly from biting it. Court's report said Williams also complained of chest pains, and Pinnegar believed Williams might have also have suffered a dislocated shoulder.

While at the hospital, Williams, without being advised of his Miranda Rights, apologized to Pinnegar for "acting up," saying he was only trying to protect his daughter. He also told Pinnegar that he'd never struck his wife, according to Pinnegar's report.

Several residents who witnessed the incident said they think police used excessive force.

While some witnesses said they didn't see the Tasing itself, their account of the aftermath matches Williams' account.

Eddie Blaylock, a 38-year-old resident of the apartment complex, said he was standing outside his unit with his wife, Cathy, when the couple witnessed the commotion. Blaylock said he doesn't personally know Williams, saying he's only "waved" at him from time to time.

Blaylock, who was a member of the crowd that gathered to watch the incident unfold, said he began taking notice after seeing "two cops trying to handcuff a guy in a wheelchair." After seeing an officer pull out his Taser, Blaylock said he yelled, "Hey, you can't do that!"

One of the officers threatened to Taser Blaylock if he "didn't step back," he said. Blaylock said he didn't actually see Williams get Tasered, although he did see him on the pavement, handcuffed, with his pants down. "He was handcuffed that way, with his pants down. He couldn't do nothing," Blaylock said. "He was just sitting there, on his knees, with his pants down. Not doing anything, not fighting, nothing. Just staring."

Blaylock and his wife said they never saw Williams resist arrest or become violent. "He was complaining about them yanking his arm back before they handcuffed him, because they had one cuff on him," Blaylock said. "They couldn't get the other arm for some reason, and that's when the Taser came in. He was yelling about his arm being stretched backwards."

Farrah Shells, Allison's girlfriend, said she walked up to the scene with her boyfriend and saw Williams on the pavement handcuffed. "They wouldn't even let him pull his pants up," Shells said.

While Allison was arrested and faces charges for resisting arrest and carrying an illegal weapon, Shells disputes the officers' claims. Shells said Allison had been trying to record video footage of the incident on a camera phone when an officer told him to stop.

Shells said Allison refused to stop filming the incident, saying, "Well, everyone else is." Shells said the officer then arrested Allison, although he didn't resist, and willingly placed his hands behind his back. In addition, Shells said she believes police deleted the video footage of the incident from the phone. "Before they gave it back to me, I saw a cop going through my phone," Shells said.

When asked about Shells' claims about the phone and the circumstances surrounding Allison's arrest, Higdon declined comment, saying that's also part of the department's internal affairs investigation.

Anyone who lives in the vicinity of the two-story apartments at 2355 K Street will tell you the area is known for drug sales and other illegal activity.

Williams said he lives at the complex strictly out of economic necessity. He also claims he never uses drugs, and only drinks an occasional beer.

Before his arrest on Sept. 11, Williams had only minor brushes with the law. He was arrested on July 17, 1991, on suspicion of spousal abuse, for an incident with his then-girlfriend. On March 27, 1992, he was arrested for misdemeanor driving without a license and a misdemeanor spousal abuse and battery warrant. All those charges were dismissed.

Despite the allegations of drug use at his home, Williams has never been arrested on any drug charges. "I'm not like what they say in all those reports. What they are trying to do is justify what they did to me," Williams said.

William's daughter, Ginni, is with his sister-in-law. He's been unable to see her since his release from jail.

Higdon said he's not sure how long the internal investigation will take, noting that such investigations can range from a few weeks to several months. He said the investigation will determine if the officers violated any of the department's policies and procedures and if any criminal acts were committed.

The department's internal affairs report will eventually be forwarded to Merced Police Chief Norm Andrade for his review.

Decker, who filed the complaint with police, said he's not convinced anything will come of the police investigation. As a result, he's helping Williams obtain legal advice. "I don't know if (the police department) will do anything," Decker said. "And I am pretty sure they're going to blow it off. But I needed to do it for me, because it bugs the hell out of me."

For his part, Williams hopes the department will hold the officers responsible for their actions, which he considers wrong. Williams said he was afraid only of losing his daughter and being knocked from his chair. "If (they) were going to do what they had to do, just lift me out of the chair and put me in the back seat," Williams said. "Don't try to throw me on the ground, because I am going to grab on (to my chair). I'm not going to let you throw me on the ground and bust my head open. I don't think anybody would let them do that."

He also hopes his story will prevent anyone else from going through a similar humiliating experience.

"If it's not me, it's somebody else," Williams said. "That's the way I see it."