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Alonzo Ashley death: ACLU wants coroner's docs, possible changes in police Taser training

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The decision by Denver DA Mitch Morrissey not to charge anyone in the case of Alonzo Ashley, who died at the Denver Zoo after an incident involving police, has already stirred controversy. But the ACLU of Colorado also believes it raises doubts about police training regarding Tasers and the positioning of a suspect's body -- both of which may have contributed to Ashley's death.

As we've reported, the Denver Police Department -- whose account differs substantially from the one shared by the victim's family -- maintains that Ashley got into a heated argument with his girlfriend on a hot July day at the zoo. Shortly thereafter, he began acting irrationally and attacked a zoo security guard prior to the arrival of DPD officers. Ashley is said to have ignored their verbal commands to calm down, and when the cops tried to arrest him, he began biting, sinking his teeth into one cop and a zoo employee. One officer was also hit by the man, and another zoo staffer wound up with a head injury.

At that point, Ashley was contact tased, as opposed to being struck by Taser barbs. What's the difference? DPD spokesman Sonny Jackson explained it to us this way: "A contact tasing is where you basically put the Taser against the skin -- and it only affects that area. It doesn't necessarily affect the whole body. The other one, the one with the barbs that you shoot, they can't stand, and you can't touch someone if it's been deployed. Whereas contact tasing works locally on the area being touched, so you can get the person to comply."

Not in this case. The DPD says Ashley kept fighting for several more minutes before he could finally be taken into custody. At that point, however, he began to convulse and his breathing stopped. He later died of a heart attack and respiratory arrest, according to the autopsy. But that's not all the report showed, according to Mark Silverstein, the local ACLU's legal director.

"It also revealed that there were five discharges of the police Taser, and the report says it was in the drive-stun mode" -- the technical term for contact tasing, as referred to DPD spokesman Jackson above. However, Silverstein believes such usage can be "really unfortunate and counterproductive," particularly in cases like this one.

"When the Taser is held up against the subject's body, it doesn't have that much-promoted paralyzing effect," he points out. "All it does is cause pain. And so, when you have an agitated subject who's displaying signs of being irrational and is resisting being handcuffed, causing him pain doesn't produce compliance. It causes thrashing and agitates him even more -- and that's the opposite effect of what the police officers would want."

For Silverstein, Ashley's tasing recalls the device's use on Marvin Booker, who died in law-enforcement custody in July 2010; charges weren't issued in this incident, either. And while there's no mention of Ashley having been put in a chokehold, as was done in Booker's case, the positioning of his body as police tried to get him under control troubles Silverstein. "When they finally got him handcuffed, he was restrained in a face-down position, with his head and shoulders pressed to the ground and pressure on his lower back pushing him to the ground -- and his legs were crossed and pressed to his buttocks," Silverstein says. "This is the kind of face-down restraint that's contra-indicated in general, but especially in the case of someone who's been engaged in super-exertion during a struggle with police, and it's been found to contribute to some in-custody deaths. It's been very close to the hog-tying position that's received so much criticism."

Protesters aren't the only ones debating these practices. Silverstein points out that recommended guidelines regarding so-called Electronic Control Weapons, or ECWs, recently produced by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) discuss the dangers of what's known as positional asphyxia after tasing. Here's an excerpt from the report:

Agencies also need to be cognizant of how positional asphyxia may exacerbate the condition of any individual who has received an ECW application. Positional asphyxia is a death that occurs when a subject's body position interferes with breathing, either when the chest is restricted from expanding properly or when the position of the subject's head obstructs the airway. Positional asphyxia has been mentioned as a possible contributing factor in a number of cases in which subjects died after one or more ECW applications. Police personnel should be trained to use a restraint technique that does not impair a subject's respiration following an ECW application.

And here's a segment about contact tasing:

The most commonly used ECWs can be used in two modes: probe and drive stun. Many police managers and officers erroneously believe that applications of drive stun are as effective as applications with probes, but that is not correct. The drive stun mode can be used to complete the circuit in the event that one of the probes is ineffective or becomes dislodged. The drive stun mode can also be used in close quarters for the purpose of protecting the officer or creating a safe distance between the officer and subject. Absent these circumstances, using the ECW in drive stun mode is of questionable value. The primary function of the drive stun mode, when not used to complete the circuit, is to gain subject compliance through the administration of pain. Using the ECW to achieve pain compliance may have limited effectiveness and, when used repeatedly, may even exacerbate the situation by inducing rage in the subject. For these reasons, agencies should carefully consider policy and training regarding when and how personnel use the drive stun mode, and should discourage its use as a pain compliance tactic. Drive stun has an applicable but limited purpose that should be taught, explained, and monitored during ECW training and field use.

At this point, Silverstein feels it's premature to demand changes in police training to reflect these guidelines.But he's submitted an open records request to the coroner's office, in the hope of learning, among other things, how long Ashley was held in the face-down position before being rolled on his side.

Even without this additional information, though, Silverstein is concerned "whether police have been adequately trained in the use of the Taser in the skin-contact mode."

All of which raises the question: If a different approach had been taken, would Alonzo Ashley still be alive?

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More from our Comment of the Day archive: "Reader: Marvin Booker could be difficult, but that doesn't mean he deserved to die."

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