Late one night in October, a 17-year-old on a bike was chased by a police officer in a cruiser. When the boy refused to stop, the officer aimed his Taser out the driver's window and fired. The boy fell off the bike and the cruiser ran over him, killing him.
Victor Steen was the fourth person who died in Florida in 2009 in an incident in which a Taser was used. It was the 57th such death since 2001, according to statistics compiled by Amnesty International and the St. Petersburg Times. At the time this placed Florida first in the nation as the state with the most fatalities related to Tasers, a weapon that delivers an incapacitating electrical jolt.
Number 54 was a mentally ill man in Fort Lauderdale who was hit with a Taser in April as he wandered in traffic, refusing to go with police. He had a heart attack and died at a hospital.
Number 55 occurred in Bradenton one week before Victor's death. Police tried to stop him because he didn't have a light on his bicycle. When he ran, police hit him with a Taser. He died within 35 minutes. The autopsy showed heart disease and a small amount of cocaine in his system.
Four days later, police in Panama City fired a Taser "at least twice" at a man who tried to conceal cocaine by swallowing it. He went into cardiac arrest and died.
Taser International, the maker of the weapon, denies that these deaths were caused by its product. Yet, these four unconnected cases illustrate a worrisome trend in Taser use.
There is no question that Tasers frequently save lives by offering law enforcement officers a nonlethal means of stopping people who present a threat to the officers, the public or themselves. But as the four fatal cases from 2009 show, Tasers are also being used to subdue people who appear to pose no threat.
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Victor lived with his mother, Cassandra Steen, in a two-bedroom house in West Pensacola. His father died a few years ago from diabetes. Victor had never been in trouble and was about to get his high school diploma, join the U.S. Army, then go to college in a few years.
Victor's pastors, teachers, family and friends repeatedly described him as "respectful" and "loving," with a "great sense of humor."
"I work with a lot of kids who need guidance, but Victor wasn't one of them. He has a very caring and considerate family and their light shone in him," said Pensacola pastor Guy Johnson, 54.
On the night of his death, Victor went to a high school homecoming football game then over to a friend's house to plan the birthday party of a child in the family.
"We wanted Victor's help because he was so good with little kids," said Victor's friend, Mike Moultrie.
About 12:45 a.m., said Moultrie, Victor left on a borrowed bike. From there to where the chase started was about 41/2 miles. But it was about 1:45 a.m. that Officer Jerald Ard spotted Victor. Where Victor went after leaving Moultrie's house is unclear.
Ard would later say that he tried to stop Victor because he had seen him at a construction site and thought he may have stolen something. But witness Victor Stallworth said he saw Victor ride his bicycle past the construction site without stopping. Months later, Ard gave investigators a different reason for stopping Victor: He didn't have a light on his bike — only two reflectors.
A video camera on the dashboard of Ard's squad car recorded the brief chase:
Ard spotted Victor and did a fast U-turn to stop him. When Victor didn't stop, Ard veered to the wrong side of the street and up on the sidewalk behind the teenager.
The officer revved the motor, his tires screeching, as he followed Victor into the side yard of an apartment building. With his flashers and PA system on, Ard yelled at Victor to "stop the bike."
It is unclear why Victor disobeyed the order to stop, but the teenager continued pedaling, trying to escape. Ard followed his every move, driving in and out of the wrong lane of traffic and up onto the sidewalk again. One minute and seven seconds into the chase Ard fired his Taser at Victor, who made a turn into a parking lot. About two seconds later, Victor fell to the ground and Ard ran over him.
Witnesses watched from in front of Sluggo's, a hipster vegan restaurant and bar directly across the street, about 50 feet from where Victor was killed. Elementary schoolteacher Rachel Moore said she saw the squad car on the wrong side of the street and heard the "loud click-click" of the Taser. She described the officer's driving as "careless" and said she feared he would hit the bicyclist.
"When the Taser clicked, the kid swung hard to his left over grass into the parking lot. The bike wobbled and he lost control. I don't know if the Taser hit him or the sound of it scared him. But he went down, and the cop turned into the parking lot and immediately ran over him," said Moore, who called 911.
Ard's cruiser dragged Victor, nearly breaking him in half. When the car stopped on top of a low concrete barrier in the parking lot, Ard called for an ambulance and jumped out of the car, yelling, "Dude, you all right? Are you alive? You hear me?"
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Before her son's funeral, Cassandra Steen joined about 125 people in the parking lot where Victor died. Some were family and friends, but most were Sluggo's patrons haunted by what they viewed as the officer's recklessness.
James Lopez, who works in a bookstore, told the St. Petersburg Times: "If you or I hit someone and killed them, we'd be facing vehicular homicide. I don't want this wrong to be dropped."
Jorge Torrens, a sound editor for the local public radio station, saw the end of the chase from his seat at Sluggo's. Torrens, along with about a dozen other patrons, frequently rode his bicycle to Sluggo's.
"The police never stop us," he said. "You have to wonder if it's because we're white, and Victor was ordered to stop because he's black. Did this tragedy have anything to do with racial profiling?"
Victor's mother was so grief-stricken her knees kept buckling and she had to be held up by two friends. One told her: "Look at all of these different people coming together for Victor."
"Yes, yes, I know," she sobbed, "but it hurts too much."
The day after the funeral, Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigator Eli Lawson called Cassandra Steen's newly-hired attorney, Aaron Watson, and told him that TV news was about to report that a paramedic had found a gun in Victor's pocket.
A video, taken from the dashboard of another officer's car, recorded what happened in the minutes before the discovery:
Three officers squatted next to Ard's car, looking under it at Victor. Ard unlocked the passenger side of his car and got something out. The object is light-colored and floppy, but isn't clearly visible. Ard, holding the object, crawled under the car next to Victor's body and stayed there for 40 seconds. Two minutes later, paramedics found a 9mm silver and black semiautomatic in Victor's pocket.
Lab tests showed the gun had been wiped clean. No fingerprints were on it — not Victor's, not anyone's. Victor's family, as well as his pastors and friends, were aghast. Victor was scared of guns, they said. He would not have carried a gun around.
Aaron Watson, who wondered if the gun might have been planted to make the teenager appear dangerous, worried aloud that it would be a distraction from the officer's "reckless pursuit."
"The focus here," Watson told the Times, "should be on why Ard was pursuing Victor in the first place and why he fired a Taser at a kid on a bike from a moving vehicle. The gun really has nothing to do with the issues."
Lawson, the FDLE investigator, was suspicious enough of what he had seen in the video to ask the four-year officer about it.
"Did you put that gun on Victor Steen?" Lawson asked in a taped interview.
Ard answered no, and the investigator changed the subject.
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At first, Cassandra Steen said she didn't want Ard punished, but suspecting the gun was a plant, she became less forgiving.
"Victor died a horrible, brutal death and, after that, his reputation was ruined by the gun. Someone besides Victor needs to be held accountable," she said.
A coroner's inquest was held in February so a Pensacola judge could decide who that should be. An assistant state attorney asked questions of witnesses and law enforcement. As is standard in an inquest, Steen family lawyers were not allowed to verbally question or cross-examine anyone.
Escambia County Judge John Simon concluded: "Mr. Steen desired to avoid apprehension on Oct. 3, 2009. That desire led to Mr. Steen's ill-advised decision to ignore lawful commands … and enter a dimly lit parking lot unaware that a potential hazard was present i.e., the existence of a raised curb. Once Mr. Steen struck the raised curb, he was ejected directly into the path of Officer Ard's vehicle. … It was impossible (based on perception reaction time) for Officer Ard to avoid striking Mr. Steen."
The judge did not find Ard's driving or firing the Taser out of his car window to be questionable in any way.
"Mr. Steen was actively fleeing Officer Ard. … Officer Ard violated no traffic laws in light of the fact that he was actively pursuing Mr. Steen."
Afterward, Victor's lawyers spoke on the courthouse steps: "This ain't the old Wild West. It's Pensacola 2010. It's absolutely outrageous that a boy would be run over and killed for no tail light on a bike," said Bill Cash.
On Oct. 3, when Victor died, the Pensacola Police Department policy didn't specifically prohibit firing a Taser from a moving squad car at someone on a bike. But less than a week later, the deputy chief issued a memo, saying: "Firing a Taser from a moving vehicle or into a moving vehicle is prohibited."
Officials said nothing about whether it was appropriate to use a Taser in cases in which there was no threat to public safety.
At the request of the St. Petersburg Times, nationally known use-of-force expert Dave Klinger, who is a retired Los Angeles police officer and now a senior research scientist at the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., reviewed documents and videos related to the case.
It didn't make sense to fire a Taser at Victor on the bike, said Klinger, because of the likelihood he would get hurt. Furthermore, he said, Victor was not a suspect in a serious crime.
"You don't Taser people in circumstances that increase the likelihood of injury unless they're a suspect for something like rape or murder," said Klinger.
One Taser probe was found embedded in an outer T-shirt Victor was wearing over another T-shirt. The second probe was on the ground. The medical examiner was unable to determine if the probes pierced Victor's skin because so much skin had been scraped away. And, while the Taser can shock through two inches of clothing, it was impossible to know whether Victor felt the jolt of electricity through his clothes.
"You can hear (the Taser) cycling, sending juice along the wires, but nothing tells you — not the sound or anything else — whether it embeds in his skin," Klinger said. "The moan and wobbling bike before Steen hits the concrete bump suggest he is affected briefly by it, but it's not certain. You just can't say one way or the other."
Maybe, said Klinger, the Taser shocked him — either through skin contact or through his clothes — or maybe the sound of the Taser firing was enough to make him lose balance.
"Something caused the bike to wobble before he hit the bump," he said.
The use-of-force expert didn't understand the officer's driving: "Why doesn't he stay in the appropriate lane and broadcast for help to set up a perimeter?"
And: "He has one hand on the steering wheel and is looking out the window when he fires the Taser, which means he doesn't have complete control over the car. What will happen if Steen falls off the bike?"
In an April memo suspending Ard for two weeks without pay, Pensacola police Capt. Jay Worley faulted Ard with exposing Victor "to unreasonable risk of harm and injury."
From that memo: "Ard drove his cruiser so close to the suspect's bike that it would have been difficult if not impossible for him to stop if the suspect fell from the bike. I also found it disturbing that Officer Ard attempted to Tase the suspect on a bike as he rode next to him."
Dave Klinger: "What the memo says is true, but the department is blaming the officer to overcome problems with its own policy. The focus should be on omissions in the policy at the time of the death."
Klinger's conclusion: "The kid should have stopped. But he shouldn't have died because he didn't."
Times researchers Natalie Watson and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Meg Laughlin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8068.