Report: Lawrence police fired ‘less lethal’ projectiles once, deployed Tasers in 3 incidents in 2017

All incidents met department policy, committee found

A still image from an episode of COPS featuring the Lawrence Police Department that aired Jan. 29, 2018. Officers arrested a suspected burglar inside a downtown tobacco shop.

When Lawrence police arrived on the scene of a quintuple shooting on Massachusetts Street and encountered a hostile crowd, one officer used force in response.

In that case, the force was pepper spray. An officer trying to secure the crime scene deployed it when a fight broke out in the crowd and people wouldn’t follow orders to disperse.

That was among 17 use of force incidents tallied by the Lawrence Police Department in 2017, according to an annual report shared publicly online. According to the report, the department’s Use of Force Committee reviewed those reports and found them all appropriate under department policy.

All the reports involved people who were actively resisting arrest, presenting “assaultive” behavior toward the officers or others, or displayed intent to harm themselves, the report says, adding that such assaultive behavior “presents injury risks to all persons involved.”

Capt. Casey Cooper, chairman of the Use of Force Committee, summarized the parameters for when use of force is appropriate under department policy and the law.

“Officers are justified in the use of force when they reasonably believe it is necessary to achieve a legitimate law enforcement purpose,” Cooper said in an email response to questions from the Journal-World. “While there is no way to cover the exact amount of force or type of force for every situation, officers must use the amount of force that reasonably appears necessary based on the facts and circumstances perceived by the officer at that time.”

Although connected to the department’s highest-profile crime of 2017 — the Oct. 1 shootings that killed three people and injured two others downtown — the pepper spray on Massachusetts Street was not officers’ highest-level use of force.

Types of force used

In 2017, officers fired a “less lethal impact round” at one person. Such rounds include beanbag projectiles fired from a specific and identifiable 12-gauge shotgun and a 40 mm foam round fired from a 40 mm launcher, Cooper said.

Also in 2017, officers hit three people with Tasers, according to the report. Five of the 2017 use of force incidents involved pepper spray. The remaining eight were physical altercations that resulted in involved civilians being seen by medics or a doctor.

From the 17 incidents in the report, a total of five police officers also were injured, the report says.

The incidents that escalated to responding officers using force included the downtown shooting, a stabbing, some fights and armed suicidal people.

Of the individuals on whom officers used force to gain control of or defend themselves from attack, the report says, 12 were white, two were black and one was Native American.

Officers are required by department policy to report incidents involving a gun, less lethal impact round, Taser, baton strike, pepper spray, improvised impact device, injury requiring medical treatment by a doctor, intentional closed fist punches or any kicks to the head, Cooper said. Also, when a community member or a department member reports allegations of excessive force, the Use of Force Committee may also review those incidents and make a recommendation to the department’s Office of Professional Accountability to review for possible policy violations.

None of the 17 incidents the committee reviewed were related to a formal complaint, the report notes.

Force incident on ‘COPS’

One of the 2017 incidents was broadcast nationwide on the reality TV show “COPS,” inspiring the episode title, “Late Night Shopper.”

On May 16, 2017, officers responded to a burglary in progress at the Discount Tobacco shop, 15 W. Ninth St. When the suspect ran back into the business to escape police, officers tackled him, then pepper-sprayed him in the face when he kept trying to fight them off. The use of force report says that after being treated by medics at the scene, the man was jailed on suspicion of burglary and other crimes.

• The standoff in which police shot a man with a “less lethal impact round” was Oct. 16, 2017, in the 1000 block of East 27th Street, according to the report.

A man had fired a gun and threatened others in the area before barricading himself in his house. He eventually came out but did not respond to officers’ commands and “was possibly armed.” A nearby officer fired the round into the suspect’s leg.

photo by: Mac Moore

Lawrence police block off 27th Street just east of Haskell Avenue during a standoff with a man at a house who was reportedly armed with a gun, Monday, Oct. 16, 2017.

• In one of the three Taser incidents, a medical call with a disturbance, an officer used a Taser to immobilize a man who had tackled and was punching another officer in the face on the ground. Another use of a Taser happened after a car chase that turned into a foot chase, when the suspect tried to hit the officer in the face after being caught. The third involved a suicidal person with a knife who refused to drop it when ordered by the officer.

How does 2017 compare?

In 2017, Taser deployments were lower than other recent years, according to previous Journal-World reports.

In 2016, officers used Tasers in five incidents, two of which violated department policy.

In 2015, officers used Tasers 13 times, including one determined to be in violation of policy. Also in 2015, officers deployed a baton and a police dog, once each.

So far in 2018, the Lawrence Police Department has tallied three incidents in which officers’ use of force was higher-level than Tasers or “less lethal” rounds: they fired their guns at suspects.

One officer is facing criminal charges for shooting a man after a traffic stop escalated into a fight; she told investigators she actually meant to immobilize the man with a Taser and mistakenly drew her gun.

Two officers have been cleared of criminal liability by the district attorney after firing their guns at suspects, including one case in which the suspect may have been grazed by the officer’s bullet. One officer fired at a mentally ill suspect who pointed a gun at him; the other fired at a double-shooting suspect who rammed the officer with his car, according to allegations released by the DA.

The three 2018 gunfire incidents are now being internally reviewed to determine whether department policies were violated. The annual report including those incidents is anticipated to be completed in 2019, said Sgt. Amy Rhoads, a department spokeswoman.

The police department’s Use of Force Committee comprises subject matter experts in defensive tactics and use of force, and it reports directly to the chief of police, Cooper said. He said the board reviews incidents to determine if officers’ actions were reasonable and within department policy, and determines if they were unreasonable and warrant further review for possible policy violations by the Office of Professional Accountability.

The police department’s 2017 use of force report is in a memo dated January 2018, prepared by Cooper for Chief Gregory Burns Jr. It was posted on the department website later. Burns was not available for an interview last week, Rhoads said.

The 17 use of force incidents make up a fraction of a percent of the police department’s encounters. According to the report, Lawrence police logged 95,708 calls for service in 2017, including 3,064 that involved arrests.

2017 use of force incidents by Lawrence police

1 — “Less lethal impact round”

3 — Taser

5 — Pepper spray

8 — Physical force

Total use of force incidents: 17

Source: Lawrence Police Department 2017 use of force report

Contact Journal-World public safety reporter Sara Shepherd


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