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Two Port Richey officers face internal investigation over use of Tasers

PORT RICHEY — When the officers arrived, Jimmy Albert Wyatt was asleep.

Finding a spot in front of the Walmart Supercenter on U.S. 19, Wyatt had turned off his Kia Rio, reclined in his passenger seat and closed his eyes by 11 p.m.

But while he slept, a woman from Tennessee named Carol Barrett called Port Richey police. Wyatt, she said, was on the run from the law.

Three officers — including Sgt. Robert Kern, the city's third in command — drove to the Walmart while a dispatcher looked for Wyatt's warrants. She couldn't find any in the FBI database. Police in Crossville, Tenn., where Wyatt lived, didn't pick up. Cumberland County deputies put her on hold.

Meanwhile, the officers stood at Wyatt's window, trying to wake him. He didn't stir. They opened his door and shook him.

That's when, Kern wrote, Wyatt said, "F--- you," and struck his palm into Kern's chest. The officers ripped Wyatt from the car. Officer Donald Velsor fired a Taser into his lower abdomen. Officer Justin Lee fired at Wyatt's stomach and collarbone. Kern issued a "drive stun" shock to his hip.

All told, Wyatt, 45, was struck with three Taser shocks within three minutes of the officers' arrival. They charged him with battery on a law enforcement officer after the palm strike and called firefighters to come remove the Taser barbs.

A minute later, the Cumberland deputies came back on the line. Wyatt had a suspended license and two Tennessee traffic warrants. He was no fugitive.

The events of Dec. 15, as written by Port Richey Lt. Don Young in a disciplinary action record, form the basis of pending internal investigations into potential abuses of force by Kern and Lee.

After reading the officers' reports, Young wrote that Kern, a 24-year veteran, and Lee, a 2009 hire "just out of Taser school," had potentially violated police code by using more than "the minimum degree of force necessary."

Kern was also cited for a failure to provide proper supervision because he allowed the arrest to "escalate to the point of multiple tasings." Velsor, who was hired last year and fired his Taser X26 first, was within police protocol due to the "threat of physical confrontation," Young wrote.

"Kern was advised the warrants … were not confirmed and could not be found," Young wrote. "Officers had no legal reason to inquire any further."

Predisciplinary hearings have been held for Kern and Lee, though police Chief Dave Brown has yet to decide potential punishment. Some records attached to the disciplinary documents were kept behind closed doors in Brown's office while he was out of town this week.

The investigation is at least the 31st case of discipline brought against Kern since he was hired in 1986. Records show he has received 12 written warnings, seven verbal reprimands and nine suspensions for a total of 22 days and four hours without pay.

Kern's violations include failing to investigate crimes, improperly handling evidence, releasing an unauthorized prisoner and at least three crashes in his patrol car.

Kern was also cited late last year for reporting to work late, forgetting to take evidence and wrongly releasing the suspect of a late-night restaurant burglary. Discipline in those cases is still pending.

Kern was promoted to corporal in 1991 but demoted less than a year later for a "failure to properly patrol, idle conversation or loafing." Details on that case and some others, including one in which Kern was suspended two weeks for "neglect of duty," could not be found by police employees this week after requests from the St. Petersburg Times.

Kern was given a raise and promoted to sergeant, the third-highest rank below Young and Brown, in May 2007. A week before his promotion, Kern was given a letter of counseling for failing to respond to a call.

As for Wyatt? His battery charge was downgraded to resisting without violence. Last month, after about two months in the Land O'Lakes jail, he was released on a year of probation and fined $525.

A laborer in Crossville, Tenn., Wyatt has been convicted of driving under the influence, domestic assault and attempting to buy prescription drugs, according to Tennessee records.

Messages left for Kern and Wyatt were not returned.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6244.

Two Port Richey officers face internal investigation over use of Tasers 03/24/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 24, 2010 10:23pm]
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