Tased and contused: After injuries, Albemarle PD redraws policy
In the wake of a controversial captured-on-video incident in which an unarmed, handcuffed man was injured after the jolt of a Taser, the Albemarle Police Department has redrawn its policy to ban such actions in the future. However, the 56 pages of documents developed in conjunction with the Department's internal investigation will remain sealed.
The incident occurred November 28 at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville. Police had arrested Michael Dennis Hogberg for being drunk in public at the football game between UVA and visiting Virginia Tech, where Hogberg has been a student.
While shooting festive game-day scenes, an alert Newsplex videographer named Marequiz Johnson notices the commotion and quickly pans his camera toward Hogberg as the young man suddenly flees the police van where he was being processed for being drunk in public.
As several officers give chase, one of them whips out a Taser and shoots Hogberg from behind. Thousands of volts of electricity course through Hogberg's body, and his face and body impact what appears to be an asphalt curb.
"It's a disgrace," says a senior law enforcement official in an adjacent jurisdiction. "This is one of those things that makes me embarrassed to be a cop."
This law enforcement official, citing the need for amicable badge-to-badge relations, declined to be identified, but he did explain his thinking.
"You're telling me that five cops can't rein in one drunk kid with his hands cuffed behind his back?" says the official. "Being a cop is all about maintaining order, and busting that kid's face against the pavement is a disruption of order."
Albemarle County brass seem to agree. In a recent revision of its Taser policy, Albemarle–- while still allowing non-probed Tasing of certain collared suspects–- now bans shooting Taser barbs into handcuffed or fleeing prisoners.
To criminal justice expert Lorie Fridell, who has seen the video of what happened to Hogberg, the policy revision, released February 20, is a welcome change.
"The thought that they Tased him with his hands behind his back made me cringe," says Fridell, a a faculty member at the University of South Florida.
Fridell explains that the Taser works by shooting two electricity-conducting darts that immobilize muscles, causing anyone standing, walking, or running to drop instantly
"Anyone running at top speed who has their muscles taken out from them it's not going to be pretty," says Fridell. "It can cause a lot of harm when that person goes down."
Fridell recalls that when she voluntarily got Tased as part of her training, she had the benefit of "two big burly officers on each side." Hogberg had no such support.
As seen in the video, Hogberg instantly, helplessly slumps to the pavement. He later gave an interview to the Newsplex in which he revealed facial cuts, contusions, and a chipped tooth.
At the time of the incident, an Albemarle police spokesperson pointed out that there were various roads nearby, so the Taser might have prevented Hogberg from more serious harm. However, the video shows the Tasing occurred after Hogberg and his pursuers had already crossed Alderman Road in the direction of some of UVA's first-year dormitories.
"They claimed he was going to get out in traffic, but I didn't see that on the video," says Hogberg's attorney, David Heilberg, who calls the incident "certainly a use of excessive force."
According to Albemarle's use-of-force-policy–- which already limits Taser use to controlling "a dangerous or violent subject"–- an unnecessary use of force doesn't need to cause any injury to be defined as one. "It is merely the use of a certain level of physical force when none or a lesser level was necessary."
County Police Chief John Miller declined to discuss the incident but, through a spokesperson, referred questions about the policies to Sergeant Darrell Byers.
"We review all use-of-force incidents," said Byers. "This led to a reevaluation and some minor changes to our policy."
The Taser was developed in the 1990s by a private company now called Taser International, which touts the devices as a non-lethal alternative to using a gun to rein in criminals.
"Taser systems use proprietary technology," says the company website, "to immediately incapacitate dangerous, combative, or high-risk individuals who pose a risk to law enforcement officers, innocent citizens, or themselves."
In recent years, as the Taser has gained popularity with police departments, so have allegations of misuse. There was the infamous "Don't Tase me, Bro" incident with a disruptive student at a 2007 political event. Two years later, a New York mom suspected of speeding was Tased in front of her kids and later won a $75,000 settlement. And earlier this month, an officer and a former officer in Desert Hot Springs, California, were criminally charged with using excessive force for Tasing unarmed people in their custody.
Albemarle County records show no such criminal charges lodged against Officer Kudro, who continues to be employed as an officer. And county spokesperson Lee Catlin says that 56 pages of documents developed in the investigation of the incident are treated as personnel records under the state freedom of Information law, so they won't be released to the public.
As for Hogberg, he is a Blacksburg resident and, according to the registrar, a 2006 graduate of Virginia Tech, where he majored in Agriculture and Life Sciences. Online Albemarle County court records show he is no stranger to the Albemarle justice system, having two prior alcohol-fueled incidents that resulted in DUI convictions–- including one in which he appears to have hit-and-run some unattended property.
He declined to be interviewed for this story, but his attorney concedes that in running from police, Hogberg acted foolishly, Heilberg calls Hogberg "a real nice young man and very accepting of his responsibility."
After the men in blue scraped Hogberg off the pavement, in addition to his original drunk-in-public charge, Hogberg was charged with felony escape, a "ridiculous" attempt, the lawyer says, to gain leverage for a plea deal.
In the ensuing plea, Hogberg was convicted of two misdemeanors and given a 30-day sentence, with 20 days suspended.
In 2007, the Department of Justice and the Police Executive Research Forum released a study calling for national standards on the use of Tasers, including a push for restraint when using such devices on handcuffed individuals–- "unless they are actively resisting or exhibiting active aggression."
Attorney Heilberg notes that despite his client's disinterest in filing any civil litigation against the county, Albemarle went farther than the national study in revising its Taser policy by banning probe-equipped Tasing of any handcuffed people.
"I'm really glad that, without being pressured, they did the right thing," says Heilberg. "That says something good about the Albemarle Police Department."