Death Puts Tasers in Spotlight Again

Officers quickly returned to duty, ME's report still out

Michael Clark, 33, died on Sept. 26 after a violent struggle in which he was Tasered at least three times by Austin police officers.
Michael Clark, 33, died on Sept. 26 after a violent struggle in which he was Tasered at least three times by Austin police officers.

Although an official cause-of-death determination has not yet been made, the APD officers involved in the Sept. 26, Taser-related death of 33-year-old Michael Clark were returned to full-duty status last week, while questions about what happened during the Monday afternoon incident remain unanswered.

APD officers Douglas Drake and Blaine Eiben were first to answer a call about a fight between Clark and an unidentified woman in the 6400 block of East William Cannon, just after 1pm. Clark was exhibiting "violent" and "disturbing" behavior, police officials said, prompting Drake and Eiben to call for backup. Before long, nine officers – including at least one sergeant and one lieutenant – were on the scene, trying to subdue Clark. Still, police say, Clark resisted and became aggressive, biting one officer on the hand, and injuring another officer's shoulder. Police fired pepper spray and then a Taser, but Clark was still out of control, police say, so officers shot him at least two more times with a Taser. Only then were they able to get him under control. Shortly thereafter, however, police report that Clark went into "medical distress" and was transported to South Austin Hospital where he died just before 4pm. After the incident, in accordance with department policy, Drake and Eiben were placed on restricted duty, but after an "initial" review of the incident, police administrators determined that the officers should be returned to the street. "It appears to us the officers followed the [use-of-force] policy that we have established," Assistant Chief Cathy Ellison told the Statesman.

In all, the incident – including what critics consider the department's too-speedy review and the return of the officers to their full-time duties – has again raised questions in the community, not only about whether the use of force was appropriate, but also about whether the Taser itself, touted as a harm-reducing, less-than-lethal weapon, is actually as safe as its manufacturers claim. Specifically, witnesses at the scene claim that the struggle was "a lot more intense" than police have described, says Nelson Linder, head of the Austin chapter of the NAACP, and at least one witness has signed an affidavit saying that police bound Clark by the arms and legs with something resembling a bungee cord – an allegation Linder said police have flatly denied. Still, Linder says that the speed with which the officers involved were cleared and returned to duty by APD brass suggests a truncated, perfunctory review. Linder said he'll "make sure" that Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle gets a copy of the affidavits collected by the NAACP so that his office – which reviews every police-involved death – can "conduct a vigorous review and questioning of the witnesses." (APD officials say that police in-car video cameras recorded the incident, but it is unclear when the video footage will be released to the public.)

More broadly, Clark's death has reinvigorated the debate over police use of the Taser, an electro-shock gun that fires two metal prongs and delivers a 50,000-volt jolt of electricity, for at least five seconds, causing temporary muscle paralysis. In theory, the temporary paralysis allows police to regain control of an unruly suspect, but police say that isn't always the case. Sometimes people are tolerant of the initial jolt, necessitating repeated strikes. And therein lies the trouble, say some critics who argue that a single electrical punch is enough to kill. Indeed, in June the manufacturer, Taser International, issued a bulletin warning that "repeated, prolonged and/or continuous exposure" may cause muscle contractions that could "impair breathing and respiration, particularly when the [weapon's metal] probes are placed across the chest or diaphragm," The Arizona Republic reported. The company's warning suggested a low-key about-face amid growing concerns about the weapon's health effects. Amnesty International has long warned that the weapon is deadly and has attributed nearly 100 deaths to Taser strikes. Still, it wasn't until earlier this year – on the same day that Taser's updated warning was posted online – that Cook County, Ill., Deputy Medical Examiner Scott Denton became the first U.S. ME to list the Taser's jolt as the cause of death, in this case of a 54-year-old Chicago man Tasered by police. The man was intoxicated on methamphetamine at the time he received two jolts from the weapon, Denton reported, but in his opinion, it was the Taser that "pushed [him] over the edge" and caused his death. Meanwhile, at least on its face, it appears that the death of Michael Clark, who was reportedly shocked twice in the chest and once in the arm, could be an example of the kind of multiple-strike medical distress the company warned of earlier this year. Travis Co. Medical Examiner Roberto Bayardo said the results of Clark's autopsy are being held until toxicology results are obtained, which he said could take up to three weeks. The tox results are necessary, Bayardo said, in order to determine a cause of death. Exactly why that's the case is unclear, since it's hard to imagine that what specifically caused Clark's death – i.e., heart failure – is a mystery. Nonetheless, Deputy Medical Examiner Elizabeth Peacock has yet to make an official determination on the cause of death, and at press time had not returned the Chronicle's phone calls.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

TaserAustin Police Department, Michael Clark, Taser, Taser International Inc., Austin Police Department, APD, Elizabeth Peacock, Roberto Bayardo, Travis County Medical Examiner's Office, TCME, Scott Denton, Cook County Medical Examiner, Nelson Linder, NAACP, Ronnie Earle, Douglas Drake, Blaine Eiben

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