Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 10, 2014

Audit faults Palo Alto officer for firing Taser at bicyclist

Report by independent police auditor confirms finding of department's internal investigation

by Gennady Sheyner

A Palo Alto police officer violated department policy in 2012 when he fired a Taser at a 16-year-old bicyclist before another officer used a police car to block the boy's path and capture him, according to a new report by Independent Police Auditor Michael Gennaco.

The report details an incident in which officers were trying to pull over a youth who was not stopping for stop signs and who was not obeying officers' commands to stop while riding a bike that was later determined to be stolen. According to the report, the two officers were pursuing the fleeing youth in a patrol car. At one point, one officer left the car and discharged a Taser while the youth was bicycling at, and ultimately, past him.

"According to the officer, the juvenile was riding right at him when he told him to stop and the officer deployed the Taser as the juvenile rode by him," the report states.

The electric stun gun, the report notes, had no apparent effect.

Where the Taser failed, the patrol car succeeded. The officer in the car "drove up beside the suspect" and "quickly applied brakes, blocking the path of the suspect and forcing him off his bicycle," the report states.

The boy fell to the ground, at which point the officer got out of the cruiser and "used force to push the suspect down and then pin him in order to keep him from trying to flee."

The other officer rejoined the struggle, according to the report, "by placing his Taser on the suspect's neck and back area and telling him that he would activate the Taser if the suspect did not comply." The officers then handcuffed the boy and placed him into custody (both officers, the report notes, also used profanity while restraining the suspect).

The boy was later medically treated for an abrasion on his face and for neck pain, cited for the stolen bicycle and released to his father.

The report does not identify the officers involved.

The incident was the second time a Taser was used in 2012. While the first case was deemed by both the department and the independent auditor to be appropriate, in this case both reviews concluded that the officer's discharge of the Taser was not consistent with the department's Taser policy. The auditor's report notes that the department ordered the officer who deployed the Taser to undergo additional training. The officer was also "formally held accountable for his Taser deployment," the report states.

In reviewing the case, internal department investigators noted that deploying a Taser on a bicyclist added complexities to the case. The review noted that "since the Taser is designed to incapacitate the individual, a cyclist who loses muscle control as a result of a successful Taser deployment could foreseeably end up injured because of the fall."

The other officer's conduct, meanwhile, was deemed to be "reasonable and within department policy," though Gennaco's report notes that the officer who blocked the bicyclist's path with the cruiser was to receive "training with regard to the potential significant dangers" of such a technique.

The incident also led Palo Alto police to review its policies for apprehending bicyclists, the report states.

"Given the possibility of injury or other unpredictable outcomes arising from the speeds and complications of the pursuit, the incident prompted the department to consider updates to its use of force training," the report states. "One proposal was to incorporate weighing the seriousness of the offense against the risks involved, similar to its vehicle pursuit policy."

In its internal review, Palo Alto police also recommended more training regarding "pursuing and apprehending fleeing bicyclists and the attendant dangers."

While Gennaco's review deemed Palo Alto's internal investigation "impressive" in identifying performance issues relating to both the officers and to the department as a whole, he had a few quibbles. He noted that Palo Alto police didn't do sufficient follow-up to the alleged profanity used by the officers while restraining the bicyclists (the profanity was "corroborated by the in-car recording system").

He also wrote that the officer who pursued the bicyclist and ultimately took him down was not interviewed about his actions, an omission that Gennaco's report calls a "significant gap."

This was the second of two Taser incidences that Gennaco reviewed in 2012. The first case, in which officers deployed the Taser during a traffic stop on a man deemed to be under the influence of drugs, was determined to have been appropriate.

READ MORE ONLINE

The tale of a discourteous police officer, and the full report from the independent police auditor, can be found on PaloAltoOnline.com.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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