Taser timeout

Shortly after the Jerome Combs Detention Center opened in 2005, detainees there began to sue, alleging that Tasers were being misused. In some cases, Tasers were used on detainees at the Kankakee, Ill., jail when they were handcuffed or already restrained.

Photo by Jason Reblando

Shortly after the Jerome Combs Detention Center opened in 2005, detainees there began to sue, alleging that Tasers were being misused. In some cases, Tasers were used on detainees at the Kankakee, Ill., jail when they were handcuffed or already restrained.

(In May 2010, The Chicago Reporter investigated the alleged abuse of Tasers at a Kankakee County jail. The story notes that more than 330 Americans were reported to have died after being shocked with a Taser since June 2001, according to an Amnesty International report. We are republishing our investigation in light of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s call for more Tasers for Chicago police officers. — Susan Smith Richardson, editor and publisher)

In 2005, the sheriff of Kankakee County, Ill., discovered the alchemy necessary to turn the financial burden of operating jails into a financial boon. He rented to other correctional agencies– including Cook County Jail – as many of his 668 beds as possible.

Running a jail – particularly, leasing the beds – is dangerous work. Jails are war zones where detainees and correctional officers fight for power. In 1986, a Kankakee County jail guard was killed while helping escort a violent detainee from a jail community room to a cell. The detainee kicked the guard, Jerome Combs, repeatedly in his chest, according to the Kankakee Daily Journal. Within 75 minutes, he hemorrhaged, choked on his blood and vomit, and died.

To maintain order in the jail, Kankakee County correctional officers have used persuasion, physical force and, if necessary, nonlethal weapons such as pepper spray. Then, about six years ago, they added another weapon to their arsenal– Tasers.

Tasers shock detainees with a five-second cycle of 1,400 volts of electricity, causing total-body muscle contractions, severe pain and sometimes electrical burns and permanent scarring.

Taser International, the weapon’s manufacturer, has produced several studies indicating that the device isn’t lethal. But more than 330 Americans are reported to have died after being shocked with a Taser since June 2001, according to an Amnesty International report. One of the most recent deaths in Illinois occurred March 10 in south suburban Midlothian. The same day, the Chicago Police Department announced it was adding several Tasers to its arsenal. Amnesty International ranked the department the 10th worst in the nation when it comes to law enforcement with the most deaths following Taser use.

To prevent the misuse of their new Tasers, the Kankakee County Sheriff’s office implemented a policy requiring officers to delay deploying them until exhausting other tactics or determining other procedures are infeasible. It also implemented this policy to ensure compliance with the law. The U.S. Constitution has traditionally been understood to prohibit detainees from being subjected to an unnecessary risk of injury or unwarranted deadly force. Similarly, sentenced detainees – typically less than 5 percent of the jail’s population – cannot be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. Pretrial detainees – the other 95 percent of the jail’s population– can’t be punished at all. Thus, Kankakee’s policy is that Tasers, like other devices and techniques, should only be used to gain control–never to punish.

Shortly after Kankakee’s new jail, Jerome Combs Detention Center, opened in 2005, problems emerged. By June 2005, detainees there began to sue, alleging the weapons were being misused.

“I can still see Dion W. Hill [sic] and Randy Rencher faces after they had been electric shock [sic] almost to death,” wrote Curtis Smith, a detainee, in a handwritten complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice. “There [sic] mouth was twisted, stretched wide open and closing uncontrollible [sic], shivering with slime coming out of the side of there [sic] mouth, their body shaking, jumping, trembling.”

According to an analysis by The Chicago Reporter, correctional officers at the Jerome Combs Detention Center were underreporting their Taser use and sometimes using Tasers when it might have been unwarranted– for example, when detainees were in restraint chairs or in handcuffs. By December 2009, a total of 15 lawsuits alleging Taser misuse were filed against staff at the facility, implicating at least 21 employees. Two of the lawsuits have been dismissed. Four of them were filed by Cook County detainees; three by federal detainees. Experts said few U.S. jails are fighting that many Taser-related lawsuits at once.

One Kankakee lawsuit stemmed from an incident that occurred in February 2006. Federal detainee Darryl Lester Lewis was housed at the Jerome Combs Detention Center while awaiting sentencing for being a felon in possession of a firearm. While detained in Kankakee, he began a hunger strike, protesting his placement, he alleged, without due process, in a segregated, maximum-security housing unit.

Eleven days into his hunger strike, Lewis displayed to a security camera in his cell a bottle of Motrin, which jail officials saw as a threat that he would attempt to overdose. Correctional officer Michael Shreffler and two other guards entered Lewis’ cell, where they saw him lying on his bed. Shreffler ordered him to get up. Lewis turned his head toward the officers to explain that he was too weak and sick to move, but, as soon as he did, Shreffler shot him with a Taser, Lewis alleged.

Shreffler and the two other officers allege that Shreffler repeated his order three times, with Lewis refusing– even cursing and yelling– each time. Shreffler resigned April 20, 2009, and began working as a police officer for the city of Kankakee.

Asked about the allegations in the lawsuits, Jerome Combs Detention Center Chief Deputy Ken McCabe said, “We get sued for some of the craziest stuff in the world.” He said that incidents involving Tasers are consistently recorded on video, and in many cases exonerate the officers.

But Cynthia Leggett, a former high-ranking Kankakee correctional officer, said there is no doubt that jail guards in Kankakee County occasionally misuse Tasers. “There are a lot of areas where they’re isolated and there’s no cameras,” she said. “You’re asking me if I feel as though sometimes the inmates have been treated unfairly? My answer is, –yes.'”

Leggett served Kankakee County as a jail guard for 33 years and rose to the rank of lieutenant, putting her second in command of the second shift at the detention center for about 18 months. She retired in 2008. Leggett never witnessed anyone misuse Tasers, she said, but several detainees reported it to her and after investigating the incidents, she urged her supervisees to stop. Some did, she said. Others did not.

At least 101 Jerome Combs Detention Center detainees were shocked by a Taser from Aug. 13, 2007, through Dec. 14, 2009, according to a Reporter analysis of incident and supervisory Taser use reports filed by correctional officers during that time.

Eighteen percent of the Taser incidents described in the incident reports occurred after a detainee allegedly displayed a physical threat, such as swinging at officers with a closed fist, according to the Reporter’s analysis. Ten percent occurred after the detainee allegedly assaulted the officer.

Some of the Taser use occurring at Jerome Combs Detention Center arouses troubling suspicions. Most of the firings are unreported, according to data the Reporter obtained from the memory of 15 of the jail’s Tasers. Only about four percent were actually reported. Essentially, for every Taser firing reported, 27 actually occurred.

A Taser International spokesperson said that the discrepancy between the data from the Tasers and reported firings could be attributed to test firings, a routine practice conducted to ensure the weapons work. Michael Downey, Kankakee County’s Chief of Corrections, said he recommends that staff test fire each Taser once a week. But David Parrish, a former Florida county jail warden, who advises jails and serves as an expert witness in use-of-force cases, said testing doesn’t justify such extensive underreporting. “If it was for testing, then they ought to have a record of it,” he said. “I’d almost equate it with a firearm – you better be able to explain where all the bullets went.”

Another troubling aspect of the jail’s Taser record is the frequency with which detainees are shocked by a Taser while restrained – handcuffed or strapped into a restraint chair – and ostensibly posing no threat. About one in four, or 23 percent, of the Taser incidents occurred under this circumstance, according to the Reporter’s analysis.

In these cases, Downey explained, “It was probably a drive stun [when a Taser is held against the body], trying to get somebody to comply.”

Parrish said it’s inappropriate to use a Taser on someone who is already restrained. An exception to that categorical ban could be made if the detainee were biting and kicking the officer while being strapped in, he said.

The Reporter also found that Jerome Combs Detention Center officers resorted to Tasers earlier than the county’s policy says they should. Twenty-eight percent of the Taser incidents occurred before officers applied any physical force, according to the Reporter’s analysis.

McCabe, the chief deputy, said that’s what officers are supposed to do. A few years ago, Downey said, the jail gave correctional officers the green light to preempt physical force, despite what the written policy says. “Usually, after we have tried everything we can, verbally, to try and get somebody to follow directions, that’s when the Tasers will at least be brought out and described as, –’Hey, we’re gonna use this or you’re gonna do what we’re asking you to do here,'” McCabe said.

That’s inappropriate policy when officers’ orders are trivial and detainees are simply refusing to comply with an order, said Bill Collins, a corrections law attorney who runs a consulting service and newsletter that helps jails and their attorneys comply with the law.

These anomalous patterns and others surface in 10 of the incidents jail officials are litigating. Of the 10, correctional officers failed to document two instances. Four allegedly occurred while the detainees were restrained. Two were allegedly videotaped on one or more of the jail’s 200 cameras, but when the plaintiffs asked for copies, the jail allegedly refused to provide any or denied their existence. And two plaintiffs allege they received no orders or warnings before a Taser was used.

Kankakee County began renting jail beds to other Illinois counties in the late 1970s, when the jail it had was partly vacant. Officials eventually suspended the rentals because the jail became overcrowded with local residents as a drug-induced crime wave rippled through the county.

Yet, even as their local jail population exploded, Sheriff Timothy Bukowski never lost sight of the potentially lucrative opportunity to rent beds. While working to build their new jail – the Jerome Combs Detention Center – Bukowski planned to reinstitute the deals, the Kankakee Daily Journal reported. First Bukowski and the county commission forged an agreement in 2001 to keep the old jail open and rent beds there after opening the new one. A year later, with the ground broken at the site of the new jail, Bukowski and the commission forged an agreement to rent beds there, too, the newspaper reported. Not long after the new jail opened in February 2005, the Kankakee County commission voted to add 144 more beds, partly so they could win another contract.

Coincidentally, Cook County Jail officials were then looking for solutions to their jail’s overcrowding and to the gang turf wars that were occurring there. In 2002, the 10,000-bed jail reached an all-time high of 11,336 detainees, and according to at least one detainee, gang conflict intensified.

Cook County Jail officials decided they needed to ship alleged gang ringleaders to another county jail. But the gang violence was not the only reason jail officials began transferring them, detainees said. Jail officials also saw the transfers as a way to pressure the gangs inside the jail to divulge intelligence that might help Cook County prosecutors lock up other gang members, said Anthony Williams, a member of the Gangster Disciples. Williams was among those transferred as he awaited trial on a first-degree murder charge. For seven months, various Cook County officials summoned Williams from his cell every other week for a meeting, offering him items, such as cigarettes, as a quid pro quo for gang intelligence.

In September 2006, more than a year before gaining county approval to do so, the Cook County Department of Corrections began sending detainees to Kankakee as a “relief valve” to solve overcrowding, according to Cook County Jail spokesperson Steve Patterson. The Kankakee Daily Journal reported that Cook County paid Kankakee $75 daily for each detainee. Detainees ran into conflict as soon as they arrived, said Leggett, the former high-ranking correctional officer. Cook County introduced the jail to its first transsexual, Leggett said. “There was a culture shock,” she added. Guards allegedly provoked detainees with racial slurs and at a Kankakee County commission meeting, two commissioners warned that Cook County would attract detainees’ families to their area, according to the Kankakee Daily Journal. “These people in Cook County are a different breed, especially your criminals up there,” said Commissioner Leonard Martin.

Several of the allegedly unjustified Taser incidents meted out to former Cook County detainees stemmed from their resistance to perceived mistreatment and their placement in the potentially hostile environment of Kankakee.

Williams said that about a week after his arrival at the jail in April 2008, he was subjected to a Taser in an isolated area of the jail while strapped into a restraint chair. Officers took him there, he alleges, after he started kicking the door of his cell to protest their refusal to allow him to access his legal papers. When he arrived at the chair, he began to spit up because of an asthma attack, he said. So they placed a translucent mesh hood over his head to prevent him from spitting on them, he alleges. Three officers used a Taser on him at least five times, over a period of six to seven minutes, while taunting him with racial slurs, he alleges.

Roughly five days later, Williams went to the doctor, where he complained about what happened to him. “That doctor didn’t even care,” Williams said. “He was like, ‘Well, we’re just here to check and make sure you’re alive and go back to your cell.'”

Two of the Cook County detainees suing Kankakee officials were shocked by a Taser after they returned from Cook County in a transport van and protested the repeated searches to which they were subjected at Jerome Combs, according to incident reports officers wrote. Both detainees –Michael Ferguson and Joseph Pettis – were allegedly handcuffed, belted and shackled during their Taser incidents.

Since 2005, Kankakee has earned millions in revenue from housing out-of-county detainees. Of its earnings, $1.4 million has come from Cook County. This relationship is legitimate, Cook County’s Patterson said by e-mail. Cook County pressures gangs to divulge intelligence, he said, but doesn’t transfer them if they fail to cooperate with interrogators. “Those who are housed in Kankakee County are housed there out of concern for our own facility,” he said. “Most, if not all, of these detainees were behavioral problems for our staff who had repeatedly refused to obey orders here, may have been subjected to nonlethal restraint here, threatened the lives of staff or threatened the lives of other detainees.”

Cook County Jail guards aren’t armed with Tasers, but, Patterson said, it’s perfectly legal that Kankakee’s are. He said that detainees transferred there never told Cook County officials they were being abused with Tasers, and any lawsuits Kankakee County may be facing are none of Cook County’s business.

“We are not involved in litigation in Kankakee County and do not wish to express an opinion about it,” he said. “We are concerned with whether the Kankakee County Jail is following the Illinois County Jail and Detention Standards. We have not been made aware that the jail is noncompliant with those standards.”

Some former Kankakee detainees agree there is no conspiracy. They believe Taser misuse is an isolated problem at the jail, confined primarily to rogue officers who work the second shift, from 3 p.m. until 11 p.m., after the jail’s brass have gone home for the day. Nearly half of the Taser incidents at the jail occurred then, according to the Reporter’s analysis.

The officer who used a Taser the most was two-time defendant Jeremy Most, the Reporter found. But the alleged Taser misuse appears too widespread to be the handiwork of a few rogue officers, Collins said.

There are “terribly systemic problems in this jail,” said James Rowe, a lawyer for two plaintiffs. “I think it’s the result of malicious officers who know that they can act without consequence or without any type of accountability.”

Leggett said Downey hires people without the emotional fortitude for the job and promotes the inexperienced. Many of them use their Tasers irresponsibly, she said. According to two detainees, some officers scope detainees, shining their Tasers’ red lights on their chests, just for fun.

The jail’s use-of-force policy vaguely explains the criteria an incident must meet before an officer resorts to a Taser, but it doesn’t outline any prohibitions against the use of Tasers on certain vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women. Nor does it restrict or forbid consecutive or extended Taser shocks.

Downey said that while the policy doesn’t explicitly forbid such things in writing, his officers all follow Taser International’s guidance. Taser’s Web site, on the other hand, explicitly states, “Each agency is responsible for creating their own use-of-force policy and determining how Taser devices fit into [that] policy.” Though an article posted on the site does warn that the devices should not generally be used against pregnant women, the elderly, or the visibly frail.

But Rowe and John Paul Carroll, a lawyer for two of the plaintiffs, said their research suggests Downey doesn’t know what his officers are doing because he doesn’t monitor them adequately. Nor do the other systems designed to find and uproot malicious officers function well, they said. The detainee disciplinary board, a body of one to three officers designed to ensure that detainees are fairly disciplined, doesn’t receive every report and receives many late, Leggett said.

Moreover, when a detainee alleges Taser misuse, Carroll and Rowe said, officers are rarely investigated or found at fault. The only officer suspended in connection with Taser misuse is John Juergens. He is a defendant in a case filed by Donald Sampson, but Juergens’ suspension without pay stemmed from his unrelated accidental Taser use on a female detainee.

Most of the detainees suing Kankakee County officials for allegedly misusing Tasers have violent criminal records. Of the 10 incidents being litigated by alleged victims, two allegedly occurred after detainees punched the correctional officers involved. Several of the plaintiffs have been convicted. Their crimes are as serious as first-degree murder. But alleged Taser victims said they didn’t deserve their mistreatment.

“They could’ve went about it a different way,” said Deon Hilliard, a Cook County detainee who was subjected to a Taser while fighting another detainee. “I thought, normally, they used it for their protection. I mean, because, we wasn’t trying to hurt them or nothing. We wasn’t coming at them with physical force or threats of violence.”

Plus, Williams pointed out, everyone shocked by a Taser at the jail isn’t a criminal. As an example, he cited Devan Gibbs, an 18-year-old Cook County detainee allegedly subjected to a Taser after mouthing off at officers via the intercom while locked alone inside his maximum-security cell. Following his April 2008 Taser incident, Gibbs was acquitted of the first-degree murder charge against him. Gibbs didn’t sue.

“He thought it was unjust, unwarranted, but that was just the way things were,” said Tommy Brewer, Gibbs’s attorney. “That’s the way things are, they can’t do much about it.”

Jeff Biertzer, Chris Danzig, Tara Garcí­a Mathewson, Amalia Oulahan, Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Schiffman and R. Thomas helped research this article.

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