Suit filed by fired officer who declined shock draws divided reactions
Should a sheriff be able to reassign an officer to a different, less desirable position if the officer refuses to undergo a training exercise?
What if that training exercise required the officer to receive a shock from a Taser?
And what if that officer had a note from his doctor advising against it?
Those are among the provocative questions at the center of a lawsuit filed this week by Ray F. Robert against the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department, and how those questions are answered depends greatly on who is being asked.
Robert, who spoke with The Indianapolis Star on Wednesday, said he can't fathom being fired for basically taking his doctor's advice.
"I'd been in law enforcement for more than 31 years, and (when I was terminated), it felt like it was all for nothing," Robert, 54, said. "Just because I can't be Tased doesn't mean I can't do my job."
Robert said two doctors -- including a physician chosen by the Sheriff's Department -- advised him against being Tased. He feared the electrical jolt and ensuing muscle spasms could further injure a damaged vertebra and a metal plate in his back.
"What happens if I become paralyzed? How long is the county going to pay me?" he asked. "What would I be able to do with my life if that happens?"
But Hamilton County Sheriff Doug Carter said other officers, including a 73-year-old employee and another officer with severe back problems, each received a two-second Taser jolt with no ill effects.
"Every single person who underwent the training found value in the exposure," Carter said. "I would never put one of my officers in danger. The vast majority of Taser injuries come from falls, which is why we have the training on a mat with people holding the person (getting Tased)."
Both sides agree that after Robert refused to be shocked in December, the department offered to create a position for him at the Hamilton County Jail.
But Robert's attorney, Daniel Lapointe Kent, called the gesture inadequate.
"They offered another position with a substantial reduction in the overall compensation package, with not as many benefits," he said. "He would have to work weekends and holidays and no longer have use of a squad car."
After Robert refused the position in the jail, Carter said he had no alternative but to fire him.
The issue drew divided reaction Wednesday.
Dalia Hashad, a policy director with human rights watchdog Amnesty International, praised Robert for his refusal and chastised the sheriff's decision.
"It seems they (the Sheriff's Department) lack a strong understanding how dangerous a Taser really is," Hashad said. "Given his medical history and the two doctor's notes, it's obvious he wasn't an appropriate person to be Tased. With that attitude, I'm curious how they're using the weapon on the street. Is there anyone they think shouldn't be Tased?"
Amnesty International is a longtime critic of Taser use. The organization attributes 335 deaths from July 2001 to August 2008 to the device, but Noblesville Police Lt. Bruce Barnes said that if an officer can't be Tased, it may raise other questions.
"You have to question if someone is fit for duty if they say they can't train for a situation that might occur in real life," said Barnes, whose department is among several in Central Indiana, including Indianapolis police that require such training. "What happens if you're wrestling with a suspect, and he grabs your Taser (and shoots you)? If you can't perform your duties, you're putting everyone else at risk."
Lapointe Kent said Robert didn't need a Taser because he had other weapons at his disposal, such as a nightstick and his firearm. Carter, however, said Tasers have become integral tools in police officers' nonlethal arsenals.
"The presence of Tasers has quickly de-escalated many violent situations," Carter said. "In five seconds, the situation is brought under control with no injury to the person or the officer. (If you were a suspect,) would you rather be hit in the head with a nightstick or stunned with a Taser with no injuries afterward?"
Tasers temporarily incapacitate suspects by delivering five seconds of 50,000 volts of low-amperage electricity through two barbs shot into the body from up to 21 feet away.
Most training programs give officers the choice of being shot with the barbs or receiving a shorter jolt through a pair of alligator clips attached to a pant leg.
Many agencies believe it is imperative for officers to understand what a Taser shock feels like, in part so they will show restraint before using the device.
In a written statement, Taser company spokesman Steve Tuttle said fewer than 100 injuries have occurred during more than 625,000 training exposures.
Greenwood Police Chief Joe Pitcher said he has had a couple of officers with heart issues who were cleared by their doctors to be Tased.
"Their doctors told them there was no evidence that it would be harmful, so to go ahead and do it," Pitcher said. The training "gives us a good lesson that if we do have to resort to these instruments, we know how painful they are to the people we have to use them on."
"Tasers are very painful but not lethal," he said. "They are subject to abuse if you are not familiar with how painful they are."
Robert's suit, filed in federal court, alleges his constitutional rights were violated and seeks reinstatement, back wages and punitive damages.