Architect, 48, dies after police struggle leads to Taser use

Carl D'Andre Johnson was an accomplished architect and religious man, his brother said, not the type of person who would challenge police and wind up dead after receiving a shock from an electronic stun-gun.

But Baltimore County police say Johnson got into a rumble with officers Thursday after crashing his Toyota pickup truck near a busy highway interchange, and continued fighting after being doused with pepper spray and receiving an initial hit from a Taser.

Shortly after he was jolted a second time, county police say Johnson, 48, lost consciousness and was later pronounced dead at a hospital. He became the second person to die after being Tasered by a county officer in the past three years.

For Carl Johnson's brother, the circumstances don't add up.

"The way this is being described is completely out of character ... unprecedented," said Gene Johnson, 42, as he traveled to a Georgia airport to come to Baltimore. "He never had an ounce of trouble."

Carl Johnson, a resident of Windsor Mill, became at least the 10th person to die in Maryland since 2004 after receiving a shock from an electronic weapon, according to state officials.

Baltimore County police spokesman Cpl. Michael Hill called it "very upsetting" that Johnson died, but said the weapon remained an important part of police work. "As a tool for trying to bring people under control, we have found it extremely effective," he said.

Police use the devices to halt or restrain belligerent or potentially dangerous suspects. The weapons shoot a pair of electrodes attached to wires, which deliver an electric current that causes pain and muscle contraction, leading to temporary paralysis.

Responding to concerns about deaths, the U.S. Justice Department has conducted several studies and determined that the darts are trouble-free in the vast majority of cases. The leading manufacturer of the devices, Taser International, has stood by their safety, but last fall issued a recommendation that officers avoid shots to the chest.

After several deaths in Maryland, including six in 2007, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler convened a task force that found that only a few police agencies throughout the state had adequate training and procedures for using the weapons. The task force set out to craft more specific protocols to avoid "over-reliance" on the devices and help ensure their use did not "unnecessarily alienate communities."

Baltimore County was highlighted for its training program, and created more explicit policies regarding Taser use on the elderly, physically disabled and suicidal individuals. But county police are also facing a $10 million lawsuit filed this year by the family of a man with bipolar disorder who died after being Tasered in 2007.

Hill said county police used Tasers 374 times this year through the end of April. In more than half of those instances, police say, suspects were assaulting officers or other people. Another 27 percent of the time, the devices were used on people considered suicidal or displaying some form of mental illness.

"It is a use of force, but we have found that it is a very useful tool for the officers when they have to deal with combative subjects," Hill said.

A witness told investigators that Johnson was speeding southbound on Interstate 795 and lost control of his truck, driving off the road near the interchange with the Beltway and colliding with a sign about 9:20 p.m., police said

A state trooper knocked on the window of the truck as Johnson appeared to be trying to drive off. Damage to the car prevented Johnson from driving off, the trooper said. Police say Johnson, of the 8300 block of Windsor Mill Road, rolled down his window and threatened the trooper, then got out of the truck and began striking him. The trooper used pepper spray on him, Hill said.

As county officers arrived, police said, Johnson continued fighting, injuring two county officers and the trooper. A county officer, a seven-year veteran assigned to the Franklin precinct, fired the Taser and struck Johnson. Police said it had no effect, and Johnson kept fighting. The Taser was used a second time by a different officer, a 14-year veteran assigned to the traffic resource management team, slowing Johnson enough to be placed in handcuffs.

Officers soon observed that he he had lapsed into unconsciousness, and medics transported him to Northwest Hospital Center, where he was pronounced dead.

Hill said Johnson did not appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. An autopsy was scheduled, and police said the investigation was continuing.

"The department does not take this lightly," Hill said.

Johnson had no arrest history in Maryland, according to public documents.

In response to an Amnesty International report that found 334 deaths following Taser use between 2001 and 2008, the Department of Justice ordered an examination of the stun guns. Among the findings: medical examiners attributed most deaths to other factors such as drug intoxication or underlying health conditions.

Taser International says the amperage of the weapon — the rate of speed the electricity moves at — is low, about the same as found in a standard Christmas tree light. Because of that, the company said, current from the dart is unlikely to reach the heart and cause increases or fluctuations in the heart rate.

Dr. Timm-Michael Dickfeld, a cardiologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said he is inclined to agree with that conclusion, but adds that the truth about the weapon's safety isn't fully known.

But, he said, there have been a number of studies on animals and humans, and they conclude that the Taser dart by itself is "relatively safe, though the question is what is 'relatively.' "

Many of the Taser hits were used on people who were not healthy or were using illicit drugs, and the effects on those people are difficult to study, Dickfeld said.

Questions over the death of Jarrell Gray of Frederick two years ago sparked, in part, the Maryland task force investigation into use of the devices.

Gene Johnson said his brother was between jobs, and had diabetes and other health problems. But he still couldn't imagine what could prompt the extreme actions described by police. He called The Baltimore Sun after he said police refused to answer basic questions about the incident.

"There's a whole lot of unanswered questions," Gene Johnson said.