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Experts say trooper's use of Taser on woman raises questions

PINELLAS PARK

When the Taser's prongs hit her back, Danielle Maudsley spun backward and smacked her head on the pavement.

A nearby dashcam recorded the fall, even capturing the sound of her head cracking on the asphalt.

Maudsley, 20, clutched her head and struggled to rise. "I can't get up," she moaned, her final words.

Then she went still.

She has been in a vegetative state ever since. Doctors have told her family she likely will never wake up.

This week, two state agencies cleared Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Daniel Cole of any wrongdoing in the September incident, which occurred as Maudsley tried to escape from an FHP station in Pinellas Park.

But several experts and researchers who reviewed reports and video of the incident said the case raises questions.

They are troubled that Cole tasered Maudsley, a suspect in two hit-and-run crashes who had drugs in her system, while she was handcuffed. They also noted that Cole was just steps behind Maudsley when he fired the Taser.

"It just doesn't make any sense," said Greg Connor, a professor at the University of Illinois Police Training Institute who specializes in use of force. "I don't see where it's going to be that hard to apprehend her."

Cole, who at 267 pounds weighed about three times as much as Maudsley, told investigators he used his Taser because he was concerned one or both of them would be injured if he tackled her. He worried she was headed toward heavy traffic on U.S. 19.

The scrutiny of the Maudsley case comes amid calls from some national groups for police agencies to take a closer look at how and when they use Tasers.

The human rights organization Amnesty International called this week for stricter limits on Taser use after an intoxicated Georgia man died hours after police shot him with one. The group believes there should be a national policy on Taser use.

Florida has had 65 Taser-related deaths since 2001, the second highest total behind California, which had 92.

Amnesty also noted policies regarding the devices vary widely. Some agencies caution heavily about their use, while others consider them a compliance device on the same level as pepper spray.

"Some departments use it the first thing, some departments use it only for the highest level of resistance," said Gene Paoline, associate professor of criminology at the University of Central Florida, who has studied injuries from Tasers. "Unfortunately there's not a standard use of force policy for anything less than deadly force. There's not a national standard for when you should use a Taser and when you should not use it."

FHP policy allows troopers to use Tasers when it "reasonably appears necessary to control non-compliant individuals who have escalated their level of resistance from passive physical resistance to active physical resistance (i.e.: bracing, tensing, pushing, or pulling)."

The policy goes on to say it must be apparent the detained person has the ability to physically threaten others or is trying to flee or escape. It also notes that Tasers shouldn't be used on someone who is handcuffed, but says there still could be times when even that is justifiable.

"The Florida Department of Law Enforcement conducted an independent review," Sgt. Steve Gaskins, a spokesman, said Friday. "FDLE's investigation found the trooper's actions were legal and within the scope of his duties."

Gaskins said the agency will not comment further because of possible legal action.

Maudsley's mother has hired lawyer Kevin Hayslett and intends to sue the FHP. Hayslett said Maudsley lives in an intensive care facility. She is fed by a tube, can't control bodily functions and has no voluntary movement. He compared her condition to Terri Schiavo, the Pinellas woman whose end-of-life case cause a nationwide stir several years ago.

Cole, the trooper, has been with FHP since 1998. He was the Pinellas Trooper of the Year in 2000. He had fired his Taser only once before — in 2009, when he used it on a suicidal man on the Sunshine Skyway bridge. The man fell to the roadway and was okay.

Investigators looking into the Maudsley case asked Cole if he would have done anything differently. He said he wouldn't have.

But experts said Cole made a series of mistakes that led to Maudsley getting away from him.

Nationally known use-of-force expert Dave Klinger, a retired Los Angeles police officer and professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, reviewed the dashcam video Friday and noted Maudsley was handcuffed in the front, which he called an "inappropriate" police tactic.

Other experts agreed, and said handcuffing in the front makes it easier for someone to escape or grab an officer's weapon.

According to the state report, Cole had the handcuffed Maudsley sit in a conference room at the FHP station while he completed paperwork in the same room. She was not handcuffed to any stationary object.

"If you have somebody in custody, you don't put them in a situation where they can escape," Klinger said. "Why in the world was she in a position to run?"

Then there's the question of whether Cole should have tasered a suspect who was simply running away and not violently resisting.

Lorie Frindell, associate criminology professor at the University of South Florida, once worked for the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum, which concluded that fleeing shouldn't be the sole justification for Taser use and that the officer should consider the severity of the offense, the suspect's threat level and the risk of serious injury to the suspect.

In this case, Maudsley was facing nonviolent offenses.

Other experts said it's difficult to dissect decisions officers must make in a matter of seconds.

Greg Meyer, a former captain with the Los Angeles Police Department and a use-of-force expert, has had more than 30 years of experience with electronic control devices.

He said they are becoming prolific in police agencies because they are effective and actually reduce injuries to officers and suspects. He said a national policy on Taser use is unrealistic.

"It's been a very outstanding tool when it's used properly," Meyer said. "This type of an injury from falling down from a Taser is extremely unusual."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Reach Kameel Stanley at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643.

The incident

In September, a handcuffed Danielle Maudsley bolted out of a Florida Highway Patrol substation after she had been arrested in a hit-and-run case. Trooper Daniel Cole chased her, pulled out his Taser and fired its electric probes. Maudsley smacked her head on the asphalt parking lot and went unconscious.

The investigations

The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement cleared Cole of wrongdoing. In an interview with investigators, Cole said he was concerned about Maudsley running toward U.S. 19 and about risking injury if he tried to tackle her.

09/19/2011 11:45:50

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Experts say trooper's use of Taser on woman raises questions 02/17/12 [Last modified: Friday, February 17, 2012 11:20pm]
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