SANDERS: New Fort Worth police chief has critical test with handling Taser death
BOB RAY SANDERSbobray@star-telegram.com
Fort Worth’s new police chief, Jeff Halstead, has been receiving high marks while making himself known in the community since taking the job last December.
But the chief needs to understand that no matter how well he has been personally accepted, and even praised, over the past few months, he will be graded meticulously on his handling of an incident last weekend in which a 24-year-old mentally ill man died after a Fort Worth police officer shocked him with a Taser.
That grade might haunt him, or bolster him, for the remainder of his career here.
With that in mind — forgetting, for the moment, the simple demand for truth and justice — the Police Department must be as forthcoming and as transparent as possible in this matter, not retreating to the old fortresses of "code of silence," delay tactics or, as one community activist put it, "the old Cowtown cover-up."
I understand the need for caution and for deliberate analysis of what happened Saturday morning after the parents of Michael Jacobs Jr., a known sufferer of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, called for help.
It may take a while for us to know all of the facts.
What we do know is that the 5-foot-5-inch, 150-pound Jacobs is dead, and that he died after a police officer used a Taser on him. He was unarmed.
Authorities are saying that it might take from 60 to 90 days to determine the exact cause of death.
While that seems like a long time, we do want the medical examiner’s office to get it right.
Halstead promised Tuesday that "this matter will be fully and fairly investigated by our department."
Good, but in the meantime, the police chief should do something I’ve been calling for since 2004, after a rash of deaths involving Tasers.
He should issue a moratorium on the use of Tasers until there is another thorough review of the department’s policies on the stun guns and until there can be more independent analyses of their effectiveness versus their danger. For the most part we’ve depended on the manufacturer’s analysis.
Since 2001, according to Amnesty International, 351 people have died after being shot with a Taser, which emits a 50,000-volt charge to the body.
The Rev. Kyev Tatum, a community activist speaking for the dead man’s family, said that Jacobs was handcuffed when police used the Taser on him. (I have not seen the official police report and, as of Tuesday afternoon, had not received a return phone call from the police spokesman.)
Some departments have policies that forbid Taser use on handcuffed people.
Four years ago, I asked Fort Worth police several questions, and I still don’t have answers:
At what point in a confrontation should police use a Taser?
Is it a weapon of first resort or last resort?
Should any person be shocked more than once?
Has the Taser become a substitute for calling for backup?
Is the Taser more lethal than some police admit?
Should a person in restraints ever be shocked?
Tatum said most police officers are good, but that some have "the mentality of being judge, jury and executioner."
The Jacobs family and the community, he said, are most upset because emergency medical technicians arrived at the east-side home at the same time as police, but the police sent them away.
The family believes that police should have allowed the EMT personnel to remain and help out and that, with several officers on the scene, Jacobs should have been subdued without being shocked.
"It was a case of incompetence and poor judgment at the minimum," Tatum said. "Some in the community are calling it murder."
He said representatives of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a national civil rights organization, would be looking into the case. In addition, he said, a wrongful death and excessive force complaint would be filed with the U.S. Justice Department under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
I don’t like to think it necessary for outside forces to come to town to deal with an issue that we ought to be able to handle here.
But, as Tatum said, at the moment the community is not trusting police and city officials to deal fairly with this situation. He criticized the police for not apologizing to the family for the incident — "or at least offering regrets."
The police chief must know this is one of those cases that can easily escalate out of control. We expect him to handle it honestly, openly and with all deliberate speed.