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Published: Friday, 4/15/2005

Subdue at what cost?

WITH the Lucas County coroner's ruling of homicide in the Jan. 31 death of Jeffrey Turner, the question we posed six months before has been answered. Yes, stun guns do kill. Or at least they can, under certain circumstances.

Mr. Turner was shocked five times with a Taser weapon as he was being subdued by Toledo police and four more times by sheriff's deputies after he became violent in the Lucas County jail.

The 41-year-old central city man had a heart condition and high blood pressure, the coroner said, but the nine 50,000-volt shocks, delivered within three hours, "also contributed to his death."

We would caution that homicide - the killing of one person by another - is not the same legal term as murder. As far as we know, there is no evidence that either the police officers who arrested Mr. Turner or the deputies who handled him at the county jail intended for him to die.

However, Mr. Turner also had a history of paranoid schizophrenia, which might have been apparent to officers who had been trained in dealing with the mentally ill.

Each year since 2001, groups of Toledo police have been specially trained, along with others from the area, to defuse trouble in incidents involving the mentally disturbed.

As of a year ago, more than 120 of these "crisis intervention" officers had been trained. We don't know whether those who dealt with Mr. Turner on that fateful day in January had undergone such training, but skilled intervention could have prevented a needless death.

Jeffrey Turner came to the attention of police in a call from a security officer at the Toledo Museum of Art, who reported a man acting suspiciously in the street behind the museum.

When officers arrived and tried to question Mr. Turner, he refused to identity himself, then pulled away, swung his elbows, and struggled with them. The officers threatened to shock him if he didn't stop, and they did - five times in succession - when he continued to resist.

Mr. Turner was handcuffed and put in leg restraints and taken to the jail, where he was at times alternately calm and combative. After he started banging on the side of a cell, a sheriff's sergeant shocked him four times with a Taser. A nurse found him unresponsive, and he was taken to St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

It is ironic that Police Chief Michael Navarre originally decided in 2002 to acquire the Taser weapons after his officers shot and killed a mentally disabled man wielding a sword. Claims from the manufacturer that the stun guns are a "less than lethal" alternative to traditional police weaponry obviously were overblown.

We do agree with Chief Navarre, who wisely has tightened rules for Taser use, that police work "can take rough, unexpected, and sometimes violent turns very quickly for officers." Certainly, Mr. Turner, at 6 feet, 3 inches tall and 220 pounds, would present a formidable problem for police, given his erratic state of agitation.

Nevertheless, the amount of force used by police in subduing any individual should be in proportion to the threat to the arresting officers' safety. Put another way, death is not an appropriate sanction for resisting arrest for loitering, especially for a suspect who did not present a lethal threat.

We realize that police officers face uncertainty and danger in innocuous assignments that suddenly turn contentious. But it is precisely for situations like checking out a person behaving strangely that crisis intervention officers are trained.

Why such a team wasn't called in to deal with Mr. Turner is unclear, and it is a question that should be addressed with an eye to ensuring that more needless deaths are prevented.

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