Last year, a New Orleans police officer fired a stun gun at the head of a fleeing suspect, who immediately went into a seizure.
A doctor working for the stun gun's manufacturer told the Police Department it was unclear whether the device had caused the seizure. An internal investigation at the department found no violation of the law or department policy. But the NOPD's Use of Force Review Board ultimately ruled the stun gun's use was unjustified.
A report released Tuesday by the city's Office of the Independent Police Monitor said the case is emblematic of a broader problem with the NOPD's use of stun guns. It said officers may be using the weapons in ways that are dangerous to the public and leave the department vulnerable to lawsuits.
The report also questioned the NOPD's Public Integrity Bureau and Use of Force Review Board for determining that most stun gun uses between 2015 and this year were justified, saying that the monitor found a number of flaws in the investigations into those incidents.
It recommended that the monitor's office and the department together come up with a "more robust review process."
NOPD spokesman Beau Tidwell said the monitor's office has always been welcome to help the department work toward compliance with a five-year-old federal consent decree outlining numerous required reforms at the NOPD, including guidelines on the use of stun guns and other force. But he said the monitor's office never shared the report released Tuesday with department personnel until its publication, which is contrary to custom.
The monitor's office replied that it had provided written and verbal critiques of incidents singled out in the report to the review board and NOPD leaders in other settings.
Regardless, Tidwell added, "We believe incidents cited here do not represent our efforts in full. There is always room for improvement, and we continue to work to refine our policies and training."
Donovan Livaccari, an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police, said the department's own internal investigations into incidents involving stun guns are "more than sufficient."
"The Police Department is tasked with reviewing these use-of-force incidents and applying the standards set to real-world circumstances," Livaccari said. "The investigations ... are conducted thoroughly."
Nonetheless, the report from monitor Susan Hutson's office said a two-year review found that NOPD officers are using stun guns on handcuffed suspects, fleeing suspects, suspects who say they have medical problems and suspects who are given little warning that they may be shocked.
All of those circumstances violate best practices governing use of stun guns — measures that are called for by the consent decree and the NOPD's own internal rules, the report said, alluding to a Reuters news investigation that found more than 1,000 people across the country died after being shocked by police stun guns.
The monitor's report cited a Jan. 27, 2016, incident in which NOPD Officer Troy Williams chased a narcotics suspect and fired a stun gun into his face without warning. The officer later said he feared the suspect may have had a weapon in a hand that was out of view, the report said.
One of the stun gun's prongs penetrated the suspect's skull and went a centimeter into his brain, delivering "tens of thousands of volts of electricity" while the man had a seizure, the report said.
A doctor for stun-gun maker Axon later told an NOPD Public Integrity Bureau investigator by email that the weapon's use may "have been a cause of inducing a seizure" but it was "very difficult to say with certainty" what other factors may have been involved.
That prompted the investigator to eventually tell the Use of Force Review Board that "there was no reason to believe a (stun gun) prong in the brain caused the suspect's seizure." Two of the board members disagreed, though one of them said it was a "close call."
The monitor also cited an incident in which Officer Daniel Oquendo told a suspect who had taken off his handcuffs at a police station that he would be shocked if he didn't recuff himself. The suspect said he had heart problems, so he put the cuffs back on, but Oquendo shocked him anyway, saying he feared the man may have been preparing to use the cuffs as a weapon.
Internal investigators cleared Oquendo of wrongdoing, despite restrictions on shocking "physically vulnerable persons" with stun guns.
Another case highlighted by the report involved a 2016 incident in which unidentified officers shocked a man with multiple stun guns and handcuffed him while he lay on the street. When the man said, "Dude, I can't breathe," an officer replied, "I don't care, stay down."
The report cited similarities between that incident and one involving Eric Garner, who died after police in New York put him in a chokehold in 2014, causing him to say he could not breathe. It later cost New York City nearly $6 million to settle a lawsuit filed by Garner's family.
"It is a basic expectation that police take claims of possible asphyxia seriously," particularly in arrests made after the use of a stun gun, the report said.
Tuesday's report is the second time in a week that the monitor's office has issued a public report. An open letter published Nov. 29 warned that a planned expansion of video surveillance could be a threat to residents' privacy and civil rights.
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