Tasered suspect dies in custody
Sunday's fatality was the area's 7th death since 2002 linked to the police stun gun.
South Florida Sun Sentinel | March 8, 2005
By Alicia A. Caldwell
DELAND -- Police say Willie Michael Towns had "superhuman strength" as he fought with officers Sunday night.
Pepper spray didn't stop the 30-year-old burglary suspect's violent struggle, so police used a Taser stun gun, DeLand Chief Edward J. Overman said.
Two shots of 50,000 volts failed, and the man who told police he had been using cocaine earlier in the day kept fighting with officers.
It took a third shock for Officers Austin Raimundo and Joel Hancock to be able to arrest Towns.
But en route to Florida Hospital DeLand, police said, Towns, of Sanford, struggled again and then stopped breathing. He died at the hospital a short time later, making him the seventh person in Central Florida to die after being shot with a Taser gun since 2002.
Since Taser International introduced the weapon, touted as a nonlethal alternative to firearms, criticism has been sharp. According to Amnesty International USA, more than 90 people have died in "Taser-related" incidents since 1999.
In Central Florida, all of the reported deaths have been attributed to other factors, such as drug use or pre-existing medical conditions.
An autopsy is scheduled for today, but Overman said he does not believe that the stun gun will be blamed for Towns' death.
"The actual time that he stopped breathing . . . was maybe 10 minutes away from the Taser shot," Overman said.
Taser International, whose officials did not return messages seeking comment Monday, have repeatedly insisted that the weapon is safe and has no lasting effects. The gun is designed to temporarily paralyze suspects' muscles, allowing officers to safety gain control of the suspects.
Edward Jackson, an Amnesty International USA spokesman, said the human-rights group thinks that more-rigorous studies of the weapon need to be done before the stun guns are declared safe.
"We're saying, 'Let's slow down; let's show some level of common sense' " and find out if there's a pattern between Taser shots and deaths, Jackson said. "We're willing to admit that we don't know, and that's why we're calling for more studies."
In November, the group issued a 93-page report calling for police agencies nationwide to cease using the high-voltage stun guns until they are proved safe. Orange County deputies were cited specifically for heavy Taser use.
About four months before the report was released, 11 Central Florida police agencies tightened policies to require that officers encounter "active resistance" before zapping a suspect. DeLand specified that requirement when the department adopted the weapon in August.
The Volusia County Sheriff's Office, however, still allows officers to use Tasers in cases where a "suspect is threatening to resist arrest."
Towns was the 10th person to be jolted with a Taser in DeLand since the department's patrol officers began carrying them, Overman said.
According to DeLand police, witnesses identified Towns as a burglary suspect Sunday. When officers spotted him hiding behind a tree near Georgia Avenue and Woodland Boulevard about 10:30 p.m., Towns ran and climbed onto the roof of a building along Woodland Boulevard before leaping onto a metal awning.
There, Overman said, Towns started fighting with Raimundo, 27, and Hancock, 37, while several other officers surrounded the building.
The officers tried to use pepper spray to subdue Towns, who records show had been arrested several times in Florida and North Carolina, but he continued to fight, Overman said.
During the struggle, Overman said, Towns broke a window and went into the building, where he continued fighting until one of the officers shot him with a Taser. The first shot failed when the electrified leads fell off Towns. When he fought back, the officer fired again but the leads again fell off Towns, Overman said. It was only after one of the officers put the gun directly on Towns that Raimundo and Hancock were able to subdue and arrest him, Overman said.
The Taser delivers the same shock whether fired from several feet away or delivered in a contact hit.
Both officers have been placed on paid leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has not been asked to assist in the investigation, Overman said.