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Sheldon Haleck had his hands up, palms open when a Honolulu police officer fired the first set of Taser barbs into his chest the evening of March 16. Soon after, as Haleck was walking away from the cop who shot him, another pair of electrified barbs arched toward his back.
Within seconds Haleck, 38, would be on the ground, screaming, with several officers holding him down to put him in handcuffs and leg shackles. He died the next day in a hospital.
He was high on methamphetamine and, according to an autopsy report, the physical exertion was too much for his body. Honolulu’s medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, finding that if the cops hadn’t forced Haleck into submission he might still be alive.
“The manner of death in this case is best classified as Homicide due to the involvement of the officers in Mr. Haleck’s death and the actions they performed which contributed to Mr. Haleck’s death,” according to the medical examiner’s report. “The classification of Homicide is a medical classification for the purpose of Death Certification and does not imply intent by the officers to kill Mr. Haleck, nor does it imply that the officers did not follow HPD procedures.”
But there are still many questions about why the situation escalated in the first place. Cameras mounted on the Tasers used to shock Haleck don’t show him acting violently or threatening any of the officers. He just didn’t seem to be complying with their orders to get out of the street and onto a sidewalk.
Honolulu attorney Eric Seitz, who represents the Haleck family, says there was no reason for the officers to deploy their Tasers, much less exert the amount of force they did based on the circumstances. Haleck had also been pepper-sprayed.
Police were initially called because bystanders reported Haleck was darting through traffic on King Street near Iolani Palace.
“They subjected him to means of physical control that caused his death and I don’t think those means were justifiable for what he was suspected of doing.” — Eric Seitz, attorney for Haleck family
While the Honolulu Police Department described him as “combative” and “disorderly” in a press release about his death, Seitz says he hasn’t seen any evidence that Haleck was presenting a danger to the officers or anyone else.
“I don’t think I’m going to have any problem finding a pathologist or expert to say he was murdered,” Seitz said. “They subjected him to means of physical control that caused his death and I don’t think those means were justifiable for what he was suspected of doing.”
The HPD has not released the names of the three officers involved in Haleck’s arrest, and the department has refused to comment on the case while it is being investigated. Both criminal and administrative investigations are ongoing.
Particularly troubling to Seitz was the officers’ use of the Taser against Haleck, since it doesn’t appear to follow Honolulu Police Department protocol or best practices of other jurisdictions.
Seitz was a lead attorney in a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case that established guidelines for Taser use in the West and clarified what might be considered excessive force.
For instance, in one of two cases considered by the court, the judges found police officers in Seattle overstepped their bounds when deploying a Taser on a pregnant woman who refused to leave her vehicle after she was cited for speeding.
The judges also found that an officer in Maui used excessive force when he deployed his Taser on a woman who had wedged herself between him and her husband, who was about to be arrested for his involvement in a domestic dispute.
Representatives from the Washington and Hawaii chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union supported the plaintiffs in both cases, saying that Tasers are potentially lethal weapons and should not be used on people suspected of minor crimes unless there is imminent danger to the officer or another person.
“Erratic and potentially dangerous behavior is not enough to tip this factor in the government’s favor — the threat must be immediate,” wrote ACLU attorneys Daniel Gluck, of Hawaii, and Nancy Talner, of Washington.
“(We) do not dispute that police officers routinely encounter belligerent individuals, and that members of the public, at times, delay and annoy police officers by being uncooperative. An officer’s frustration, however, is no justification for using serious, potentially lethal force on an individual.”
The HPD’s 16-page electric gun policy was implemented in 2006 and has been updated several times, most recently this past May, a few months after Haleck’s death. For the most part the policy aligns with national standards, and includes sections related to training, maintenance and use.
Officers under the rank of lieutenant must be trained and certified to carry an electric gun every year. The policy provides guidance on when an officer should deploy an electric gun or simply brandish it as a warning. The policy also outlines scenarios in which a Taser should not be used.
For example, the policy states that officers are prohibited from using a Taser on pregnant women, people operating motor vehicles and those who are physically disabled and physically frail. Officers are also not allowed to use their Tasers on handcuffed suspects, those who are engaged in peaceful disobedience or anyone who is fleeing from custody.
The policy also accounts for individuals who might be drunk or high:
|Individuals suspected of being under the influence of drugs/alcohol or exhibiting symptoms of excited delirium (e.g., nudity, profuse sweating, and irrational behavior) may be more susceptible to collateral problems and should be closely monitored following the application of the electric gun until they can be examined by paramedics or other medical personnel.|
But the policy also provides officers with a certain amount of leeway when it comes to issuing a shock.
Tasers can be used when a suspect is potentially violent or engaged in active resistance, which is defined as a behavior that “physically counteracts an officer’s attempt to control and creates a risk of bodily harm to the officer, subject, and/or another person.”
Someone who is suicidal or who has barricaded himself or herself from the police and is in possession of a weapon or other object that could harm someone is also open to being zapped with a Taser.
|An officer shall use only the amount of force as is objectively reasonable, given the facts and circumstances perceived by the officer at the time of the event, to effectively bring the incident under control.‘Reasonableness’ of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on scene at the time of the incident. Any interpretation of ‘reasonableness’ must allow for the fact that police officers are forced to make split-second decisions in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.|
Verbal warnings should also be issued, followed by a “reasonable opportunity for voluntary compliance.”
Kenneth Lawson teaches criminal law at the University of Hawaii. At Civil Beat’s request, he reviewed Haleck’s autopsy report, the Taser videos showing his arrest and HPD’s policies regarding electric guns and use of force.
Lawson said it seems clear based on the information that’s been made available so far that the officers did not follow proper Taser protocol when trying to arrest Haleck. To Lawson it appeared Haleck was not acting aggressively toward the officers. He just wasn’t listening to them.
“When you talk about Tasing somebody, that’s almost the last measure before you end up shooting them,” Lawson said. “He’s unarmed. He’s not threatening anybody. He’s holding his hands up. His fists are un-balled. He’s not in any position in which he’s trying to strike the officer.”
Lawson said it’s important for HPD and other law enforcement agencies to learn from such scenarios so that similar situations don’t recur. But he also criticized the department for not being forthright with the public about in-custody deaths.
“The questions become is there any discipline and do these officers get retrained,” Lawson said. “These cases show that there needs to be an independent civilian review board. And it’s not to pick on them. It’s to make sure that our policing is state of the art.”
Hawaii does not have an independent review board that analyzes shootings and in-custody deaths. All reviews are done internally and by prosecutors.
HPD Spokeswoman Michelle Yu said the three officers have eight, 10 and 14 years of experience with the department. None was placed on restricted duty.