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A hard report to swallow

Granville Templeton III, attorney for the family of George King, a 19-year-old man who died after being Tased 5 times in May at Good Samaritan Hospital, talks about the probe that cleared police in King's death. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

We can understand the possibility that the Baltimore state's attorney's office concluded, after examining the evidence, that it did not have a criminal case against two city police officers who repeatedly struck a patient at MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital with a Taser last May. But the prosecutors' contention that the use of Tasers and other physical means to restrain 19-year-old George V. King had nothing to do with his lapse into a coma moments after the incident and his death a week later is hard to believe. Given the already strained relationship between officers and community residents, that finding is bound to feed into complaints of excessive use of force by Baltimore police and fuel charges that the department is out of control.

In declining to press charges against the two officers involved, prosecutors attributed Mr. King's death to "natural causes following a lengthy struggle" with police and staff. They said an autopsy found "no credible evidence that either the restraint of the decedent by medical personnel or law enforcement, the use of the Taser, or the administration of any of the sedating medications caused or contributed to Mr. King's death" — despite witnesses who reported seeing officers beating the victim in his hospital room, striking him with a Taser at least five times and then choking him into unconsciousness. It strains credulity that the violence of the confrontation was not even a contributing factor to Mr. King's subsequent death.

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Mr. King, who also suffered from meningitis, went to Good Samaritan May 6 after suffering four seizures caused by medication he was taking for tooth pain. The next day he had another seizure while in the hospital and was about to be taken to the intensive care unit when he suddenly objected to being moved and demanded to be released. Prosecutors said he then became "aggressive, combative and disoriented, possibly because of the medication he had been given." A struggle with staff members trying to restrain him ensued and about an hour later police were called. That's when one of the officers struck Mr. King with the Taser. A few moments later he went into cardiac arrest and never recovered.

It's entirely plausible that the state's attorney decided the evidence wasn't strong enough to indict either of the officers involved. It's even plausible that the officers' use of a Taser may have exacerbated a pre-existing condition Mr. King had that ultimately led to his death. But to say the Taser strikes and other restraints were completely unrelated to the encounter's fatal outcome makes it seem as if authorities are willfully denying the obvious.

The Taser is an electroshock weapon that is often touted as a less lethal alternative to firearms when pursuing fleeing suspects or attempting to take unruly individuals into custody. It works by disrupting the voluntary control of muscles to produce a temporary form of paralysis. But the phrase "less lethal" has a caveat: Tasers can still kill, and the device's manufacturer specifically warns against using them more than once to subdue a suspect "unless the officer reasonably believes that the need to control an individual outweighs the potentially increased risk posed by multiple applications."

Did the officers who confronted Mr. King know that, and was their decision to use the device repeatedly on a patient suffering a medical crisis a reasonable judgment call under the circumstances? City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young says he wants the Department of Justice to look into how city police use Tasers, including how well officers are trained to employ the devices and whether they follow department guidelines that forbid unwarranted or excessive use of force. That's entirely appropriate.

Mr. Young has also called for police to wear body cameras that record their interactions with the public. It's impossible to know whether cameras would have exerted a restraining influence on either the officers involved or on Mr. King, but they surely would have given prosecutors a clearer picture of exactly what happened. The use of such cameras in a hospital raises certain privacy and evidence collection issues, but other cities have employed them successfully and there is little doubt such questions can be resolved.

Meanwhile, prosecutors' conclusion that the Taser and other restraint techniques played no role in Mr. King's death undoubtedly will strike his family as a miscarriage of justice. It's also likely to increase the suspicion among ordinary citizens that the criminal justice system has no interest in holding to account the wrongdoers in its own ranks and further undermine trust between the police and the communities they are sworn to serve. Such complete exoneration of the officers involved suggests no need for the police to even consider whether they should conduct themselves differently in the future. That would be a real tragedy.

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