APD's Michael Clark Video
Just after 1pm on Sept. 26, 2005, 33-year-old Michael Clark climbed into the back seat of the Austin police cruiser driven by Officer Blaine Eiben. Eiben had been called to East William Cannon Drive after someone reported that a man, later identified as Clark, was fighting with an unidentified woman on the street. Although it appeared to be a routine call, Eiben's encounter with Clark turned out to be anything but ordinary. The episode lasted nearly two hours, eventually involved nine officers, and, ultimately, ended in Clark's death. About an hour and a half after Eiben's arrival, Clark exhibited "medical distress" after being electro-shocked and cuffed by officers, and was rushed to the hospital that afternoon. APD in-car cameras recorded nearly all of that call's events, in footage which APD released on Feb. 9.
The police DVD (a compilation of six disjointed sections shot simultaneously by different cameras) displays a long, confused, and troubling police incident, taking place in the open sun on a day of record Texas heat. It shows no outright police brutality, although it certainly raises questions about how best to handle a confused or mentally distressed person in a difficult situation, whether the standard procedures always make sense, and, most specifically, whether the use of Tasers in such a situation carries unacceptable risks. Finally, the recording does not definitively answer the still open question of what caused Michael Clark's death.
Although Clark's speech is confusing and the audio is unclear, from the back of the squad car Clark tells Eiben something vague about a robbery involving people from Louisiana and something about his cell phone. Eiben soon decides that he will need a mental health officer for an evaluation and asks Clark if he's "ever been diagnosed with anything" like schizophrenia, or whether he's on any drugs; Clark responds that he has not been diagnosed and that he had taken drugs several days before. Eiben calls one of Clark's relatives but doesn't get much help. "He's just talking real crazy," Eiben says over the phone. "[That] all these people are after him; he's just not making a whole lot of sense."
Before long, the second officer, James Morgan, arrives to do the mental health evaluation. Part of the "rules," he tells Clark, require Morgan to put cuffs on him. Clark doesn't want the cuffs. Morgan promises to be the one to put them on; Clark says he's hot it was nearly 108 degrees that day, the second in a string of record-breaking hot days and Morgan agrees. Although the car is running, the air conditioning is on, and Clark's window is partially rolled down, there is no shade on the street, and the harsh afternoon sun glares visibly on the window. "That's what I'm saying, man," Morgan tells Clark. "If you just cooperate, I can put the handcuffs on you and everything will be cool. [We'll] take you up there, you talk to a doctor, and everything will be cool."
Morgan says that if Clark fights, the officer may have to use his Taser and then arrest Clark, which means he'll have to go to jail and will be charged with a crime. "If you don't let me put the cuffs on," he explains, he'll have to charge Clark with resisting arrest, and Morgan doesn't want to do that. "You feel me?" he asks Clark. Clark refuses to cooperate, indicating that he will fight if they try to cuff him. "This means you're going to fight me?" Morgan asks. "Why are you going to fight me?"
Just over an hour into the call, as additional officers arrive at the scene and consult near the car, the tape shows an increasingly anxious Clark shifting in the rear of the half-cage patrol car, his eyes wide and darting back and forth, tracking the officers' movements; sweat is visible on his brow. After some time, an officer sprays pepper spray through the window of the car, but Clark moves his upper body into the rear parcel shelf and is not subdued. The officers (while milling around commenting on the heat) then formulate a new plan apparently concerned about firing the Taser into a car filled with pepper spray fumes, they decide to open the door, get one of Clark's arms outside, pull him out and then fire a Taser at him, in the hope that they can incapacitate him sufficiently to cuff him. The door opens and Clark resists, backing into the partition that separates the caged-in half of the rear compartment of the car; but with nine officers outside, he's outnumbered; within seconds he's out of the car, struck with a Taser three times, twice in the chest and once on the arm and onto the ground.
Although the audio recording is of poor quality, at one point in the tape an officer can be heard radioing in a call for EMS, before officers pull Clark from the car and use their Tasers on him. After he's subdued and while they wait for EMS (an officer makes a second call asking about the delay), the officers try to keep Clark cool by offering him water and pouring water on him. Shortly thereafter, they realize he's in more than ordinary physical distress he's coughing, and his body, which they've propped up into a sitting position (department policy regarding Taser strikes), repeatedly slumps heavily backward. (Indeed, at one point Clark appears to be sliding the lower half of his body underneath the rear of the running police car; at least two officers appear to be working to keep him out from underneath the tailpipe and to keep him in an upright position.) Nearly 15 minutes elapse before EMS arrives on the scene and lifts Clark into an ambulance, and at least another five minutes elapse before the ambulance leaves for the hospital. Because the Internal Affairs investigation into the incident is ongoing, police officials declined to provide any clarifying or additional details.
While the tapes suggest that the officers' actions were, for the most part, both measured and reasonable under existing policies, the incident still resulted in Clark's death. According to the Travis Co. Medical Examiner's Office, Clark had PCP and the cocaine metabolite in his system. Additionally, Deputy ME Elizabeth Peacock's autopsy noted that Clark had sickle cell trait, a form of sickle cell disease in which the carrier has a single defective gene (as opposed to the two defective genes that result in anemia, the most severe form of the disease) and is generally able to live a symptom-free life.
Peacock concluded that Clark died from "massive intravascular sickling associated with extreme physical activity due to PCP and cocaine induced excited delirium"; that is, that Clark became so agitated from drugs that his red blood cells lost oxygen and collapsed, killing him a conclusion described as questionable by sickle cell experts consulted by the Chronicle. (For more, see "What Killed Michael Clark?" Dec. 2.) Peacock ruled out the heat of the day, or the strikes from the Tasers, or even the volatile situation, as having contributed to Clark's delirium or death an opinion that remains under review by a panel of local medical experts. At a minimum, the police recordings suggest that although Clark is obviously agitated while in the car, he does not appear to be having any clear medical difficulty until just after the three Taser strikes have been administered.
On Jan. 4, a Travis Co. grand jury cleared the officers (including Eiben and Morgan) of any criminal responsibility for Clark's death.
*Oops! The following correction ran in the March 3, 2006 issue: In last week's story "APD's Michael Clark Videos," we incorrectly reported that the mental health officer that responded to the scene was Officer Douglas Drake. In fact, the MHO who evaluated Clark at the scene was Officer James Morgan. We regret the error.