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Video: Zephyrhills police fire officer for using Taser on man who did not resist arrest

Zephyrhills Police Department fired Officer Tim Claussen for use of excessive force. In early September, Claussen used his Taser to subdue Lester Brown inside Brown's home. Claussen said Brown had resisted, but the video shows no resistance on the part of Brown. Brown had been a suspect in a shoplifting case. [Courtesy WTSP 10News
Officer Tim Claussen]
Zephyrhills Police Department fired Officer Tim Claussen for use of excessive force. In early September, Claussen used his Taser to subdue Lester Brown inside Brown's home. Claussen said Brown had resisted, but the video shows no resistance on the part of Brown. Brown had been a suspect in a shoplifting case. [Courtesy WTSP 10News Officer Tim Claussen]
Published Oct. 3, 2015

ZEPHYRHILLS — The officer had his Taser pointed at the man when the video started.

"Come outside now," Zephyrhills police Officer Tim Claussen told the man standing inside the doorway of his home.

Lester Brown had his hands up. The officer came to Brown's home the evening of Sept. 9 to investigate a shoplifting that took place earlier that day, police said.

"Come outside now," Claussen said, "or you're about to get tased. This is the last time."

Brown, hands still up, didn't move. Moments later the video camera at the tip of the Taser showed Claussen firing the electroshock weapon. Brown tried to run but collapsed.

"You just made it a lot worse on yourself, Mr. Brown," the officer said.

"Why," said Brown, lying on his stomach, "cause I'm in my house?"

This week, Zephyrhills officials fired Claussen. An internal investigation determined "the deployment of the Taser was unjustified," said city attorney Joseph Poblick at a news conference Friday.

Police commanders said they learned of the incident while reviewing daily reports. The department started an investigation and put Claussen on leave.

They terminated him Wednesday.

"It certainly hurts to (fire an officer), but I'm here to do the right thing for the community," Zephyrhills police Chief David Shears said.

The chief added: "We're trained to know when to deploy the Taser."

The Zephyrhills Police Department fired its officer amid increasing national scrutiny of police conduct and how officers use force to subdue suspects — particularly black suspects.

Claussen, 36, is white and Brown, 42, is black. Police officials, however, said race was not a factor in the incident.

"We didn't see any evidence that it was racially motivated in any way," Capt. Derek Brewer said.

Nor, the captain said, was Claussen fired out of fear that the incident might spark public outcry. Over the past year, police use of force against blacks has incited protests across the country with activists accusing officers of unequal treatment and racial bias.

"We recognized that there was an issue and that's why we acted quickly," Brewer said. "Given the circumstances of this incident, I feel like it was the right decision."

Brewer framed the department's decision this way: "As a citizen, if you were Mr. Brown, would you have expected that type of response?"

When asked what the proper procedure would have been for Claussen to handle a suspect who was not resisting — but not complying, either — Brewer declined to answer. The captain said he could not comment because there is still an ongoing investigation into Claussen's partner, who was not identified.

Claussen's own Sept. 9 police report detailed how the incident started. A Bealls department store reported five stolen items worth $112.97.

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The store's loss prevention officer told Claussen security cameras caught a man walking into a dressing room with five items. But the man walked out without them while "holding his waist area as if he had clothes concealed under his shirt," Claussen's report said.

The store said the man and a woman left in a silver Nissan whose license plate identified Brown as the owner, according to Claussen's report.

When Claussen and his partner arrived at Brown's house at 5733 20th St., the officer's report said Brown "answered … by opening the door slightly."

Here's how Claussen described the incident:

"I requested Mr. Brown exit the residence several times to conduct my investigation and he refused.

"Mr. Brown also refused to show his hands so I pulled the door to the residence open.

"I continued to give Mr. Brown verbal commands to exit the residence as he stood just inside the front door, with negative results.

"I pointed my Taser X26 at Mr. Brown, gave him several more verbal commands to exit the residence, with negative results, so I deployed my Taser probes which struck Mr. Brown in the abdomen."

Afterward, Claussen's report said he and his partner found the stolen items in Brown's home and car — except for the shoes, which Brown was wearing. The report said the woman who was with Brown at the store told officers he stole the items.

Brown was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of retail theft. But at the urging of Zephyrhills police, that charged was later dropped by the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, records show.

Brown was taken to Florida Hospital Zephyrhills before he was booked into the Pasco County jail. He complained of dizziness and shoulder pain, his arrest report said, which he said was possibly related to the fall he took.

Brewer said Claussen, who spent 10 years on the force, did not have a lengthy disciplinary file. The officer had used his Taser in the past, police officials said, but those incidents were later justified.

Claussen declined to comment on Friday. He referred questions to the West Central Florida Police Benevolent Association, which did not return calls for comment.

At Brown's home, a woman told a reporter: "Please just leave."

Times news researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.