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Taser Use in Man's Death Broke Rules

September 26, 2008

Taser Use in Man's Death Broke Rules, Police Say By KAREEM FAHIM and CHRISTINE HAUSER The firing of a Taser stun gun that led an emotionally disturbed man to fall from a Brooklyn building ledge to his death on Wednesday appeared to have violated departmental guidelines, the police said on Thursday.

The guidelines tell officers that when possible, the Taser, which fires barbs that deliver thousands of volts of electrical current, should not be used in situations when a person could fall from an elevated surface.

A law enforcement official identified the lieutenant who gave the order to use the Taser as Michael Pigott, a 21-year veteran of the force. He was placed on modified assignment without his gun and badge, and the officer who fired the weapon was put on administrative duty amid an investigation by the Police Department and the Brooklyn district attorney. The police declined to identify the officer.

Officers at the scene of the confrontation had called by radio for an inflatable bag as the events unfolded, but it had not yet arrived when the man, Iman Morales, 35, was struck with the device and fell, according to a statement by the department's chief spokesman, Paul J. Browne.

"None of the E.S.U. officers on the scene were positioned to break his fall, nor did they devise a plan in advance to do so," the statement said, referring to the elite police Emergency Service Unit.

The department's response to Mr. Morales's death took less than a day, in a quick attempt to address the elements of the case that have tested the department in the past: It has long wrestled with the best way to train officers who confront people with mental illness, and there has been continuing debate about the department's use of Tasers, which have a troubled history in New York and which the police have resisted using widely.

A report by the RAND Corporation - commissioned in January 2007 after the

2006 death of Sean Bell and released this June - recommended that the New York Police Department experiment with using the Tasers more as an alternative to firearms. So far, the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, has not carried out a recommendation of the study that the availability of Tasers be expanded in two precincts as part of a pilot program. Currently, only sergeants and members of the Emergency Service Unit carry the weapons.

The events in the current case began shortly before 2 p.m. on Wednesday, when Mr. Morales's mother asked someone to call 911 after her son did not answer the door of his apartment at 489 Tompkins Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the police said.

A patrol officer arrived at the scene first, and a few minutes later, a unit of Emergency Service officers. When they arrived, the police said, Mr.

Morales ran onto the fire escape outside his third-floor apartment.

Fleeing the officers up the fire escape, he tried to enter an apartment on the fourth floor by pushing in an air-conditioner, the police said.

Unsuccessful, he then descended to the second-floor fire escape and from there jumped down to the security-gate housing for a ground-floor storefront, which was about 10 feet from the sidewalk.

As an officer was securing himself on the second-floor fire escape, Mr.

Morales jabbed at him with an eight-foot-long fluorescent light tube, the police said.

Under orders from a lieutenant, the officer on the sidewalk, who is 37 and has been in the department for 10 years, used the Taser on Mr. Morales, according to the police, and he fell to the sidewalk, hitting his head. That was at 2:27, the Police Department said, about 22 minutes after the Emergency Service officers arrived at the scene. The police said an officer at the scene had radioed for an inflatable bag, and it was not clear why the bag had not arrived when Mr. Morales fell, or why the officers had not waited for it before using the Taser on Mr. Morales.

Mr. Morales was taken to Kings County Hospital Center with serious head trauma and was later pronounced dead. The cause of death has not yet been determined.

The order not to use the Taser in such circumstances appears in a 10-page interim order issued by the Police Department in June. Mr. Browne said that the order was released before the distribution of new holsters for police sergeants, who were ordered to carry their Tasers with them, rather than keep them in their cars, as they had previously done. Emergency Service officers have been carrying them for 24 years.

The order discusses types of people the Taser should not be used on, including children, the elderly and pregnant women, and instructs officers not to use them "in situations where the subject may fall from an elevated surface."

Mr. Browne said that the Brooklyn district attorney's office had asked the department not to interview the two officers while the Police Department and the district attorney investigate the events of Wednesday afternoon. Such a request is routine, for legal reasons.

A video taken by a witness and posted on the Web site of The New York Post on Wednesday shows Mr. Morales naked on the ledge, waving a long light tube.

As he tumbles to the ground, onlookers can be heard screaming.

Officers in the Emergency Service Unit receive intensive training for exactly the kind of crisis depicted on the video. Their training includes how to deal with emotionally disturbed people and the use of nonlethal restraints. They are taught how to use air bags and how to deal with would-be jumpers.

The officers in the unit have carried Tasers since shortly after the 1984 death of Eleanor Bumpurs, a disturbed, obese woman who was shotgunned to death by an officer in her apartment after she escaped a restraint and brandished a knife.

Last year, members of the unit helped respond to most of the 80,000 calls the Police Department received for reports of emotionally disturbed people, the police said.

According to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, there were 39 complaints about the Emergency Service Unit last year, the highest number since 2003, when there were 44 complaints. Only one of the claims last year was substantiated.

One frequent critic of the Police Department, State Senator Eric L. Adams of Brooklyn, said that the death of Mr. Morales underscored its continued inability to deal with the mentally ill. Standing in front of Mr. Morales's building, Senator Adams said, "You can give someone desk duty, you can suspend someone, you can fire someone, but these are Band-Aids."

Andy Newman contributed reporting.