Not Black and White: Officer Conviction on 23-second Taser Incident

On September 14, 2014, Independence, Missouri Officer Timothy Runnels used force during an arrest of a 17 year old; his actions recently saw him convicted on federal charges for police misconduct. Runnels was sentenced to four years in federal prison. The mainstream media is reporting that an innocent 17 year old was tasered and beaten to death while doing nothing wrong. However, the truth is not quite as black and white.

Dash cam and cell phone footage shows the whole incident, and we are going to break it down for you after the jump.

Video Source The Intercept:

The Lawful Arrest

Officer Runnels stopped a vehicle for a warrant associated with the vehicle. Officer Runnels called out his traffic stop on the radio, and dispatch advised him that there was an associated warrant with the vehicle. It’s important to note that dispatch did not give him any information on who or what the warrant was for. All we know for sure is that Officer Runnels knew that he stopped a vehicle with an associated warrant. Officer Runnels was on a legal Terry Stop.

Officer Runnels approached the passenger side and asked the driver, Bryce Masters, to roll down the window more; not rolling the window down more than a crack is usually a strong indicator that the driver is attempting to cover the odor of drugs or intoxicants. Masters refused to roll the window down. Seeing that he was getting nowhere by asking Masters to roll his passenger window down, Officer Runnels walked over to the driver door and opened the door. Officer Runnels reported to smell marijuana in the vehicle. Officer Runnels then ordered Masters out of the vehicle.

While Masters had no legal obligation to roll down his window more than a crack, he was legally obligated to obey Officer Runnel’s orders to exit the vehicle (see Pennsylvania v. Mimms.) Officer Runnels told Masters to exit his vehicle five times and Masters refused to comply with his lawful commands. Most jurisdictions have laws for interfering with a police officer, and we expect that Independence, Missouri is no different. At this point, Officer Runnels almost certainly had probable cause to arrest Masters (we say “almost” because we are unfamiliar with MN Law.)

Officer Runnels attempted to lawfully pull Masters out of the vehicle. Masters actively resisted by pulling away from Officer Runnel’s grasp. Officer Runnels then drew his Taser and warned Masters that he would be tased if he continued to resist. Masters started recording on his cell phone and continued to actively resist. Officer Runnels holstered his Taser and then tried several ways to pull Masters out of the vehicle. As seen in the video from Masters cell phone, Masters pushed his body into the vehicle which prevented Officer Runnels from getting a hold on Masters’ upper extremities. To remove Masters from the vehicle, Officer Runnels had nothing to grab on to except for Masters’ legs. Officer Runnels attempted to pull Masters’ leg, but was unsuccessful while Masters continued to actively resist. Officer Runnels very clearly said, “You are under arrest,” and yet Masters continued to resist.

Passive and active resistance

Escalating Use of Force

At that point, Officer Runnels had unsuccessfully attempted use of verbal commands and control holds to make Masters comply with his legal orders to exit the vehicle. Officer Runnels had several force options available to him at that moment. Officer Runnels could have continued to ineffectively attempt to use verbal commands and control holds. However, every moment that passed where Masters wasn’t under control increased the likelihood of escalation. Empty handed strikes would likely have been ineffective, because Masters wedged himself in the vehicle, only presenting his legs to Officer Runnels. Baton strikes would have required Officer Runnels to stick his baton inside of the car, where Masters could easily grab it, and there was no room to line up a good strike.

Pepper Spray (AKA OC – Oleoresin Capsicum) may have been an effective force option. Being stuck in a car after being doused in OC would make many-a-person make a quick exit. However, there were some significant drawbacks to deploying pepper spray. Using pepper spray would likely have caused significant damage to the interior of the vehicle; minimizing damage during a use of force is an important factor to consider. Officer Runnels would likely have been hit with some of the pepper spray himself; Officer Runnels likely knew that this could reduce his effectiveness. Most importantly, getting sprayed with pepper spray is torture for the person hit. For readers who haven’t had the pleasure of getting a blast of pepper spray to the face, you can expect a good thirty minutes of agony while your eyes are involuntary closed shut, you are unable to control your breathing, and your skin is on fire. Once the initial effects of pepper spray wear off, it may reactivate at any time over the next couple of days, randomly causing burning pain. When you attempt to wash pepper spray off, the water may just move it to a different part of your body.

Officer Timothy Runnels

Officer Runnels tries to remove resisting Masters from vehicle.

Use of a Taser does not have any of the drawbacks of pepper spray. A Taser is unlikely to cause any property damage besides two small holes in a suspect’s clothing. Tasers are safe to the officer. Most importantly, the pain of getting shocked with a Taser is minuscule compared to the agony of pepper spray.  Having been personally shocked by a Taser several times, I can tell you that getting shocked results in extreme pain while the Taser is active, but all pain immediately ceases when the Taser stops. Officers even voluntarily get shocked in training and sometimes just to demonstrate the effects of the Taser. Nobody volunteers to get pepper sprayed.

The primary drawback to using a Taser is its inconsistency in being effective. If there is a small spread between the probes, it won’t lock up the suspect’s body (NMI,) and only result in a localized area of pain. If both probes don’t connect, then it’s ineffective. If the fragile wires break, then it’s ineffective. Taser cartridges also have mechanical failures. Tasers fail so often, many police department policies prohibit the use of Tasers on armed or violent suspects unless a backup officer is present. If a Taser fails, then the officer can transition to using pepper spray. However, Officers cannot transition from pepper spray to a taser, because pepper spray tends to be flammable and Tasers are an ignition source.

Officer Runnels opted to use the Taser, and we, at Blue Lives Matter, strongly agree with Officer Runnels’ force decision. Officer Runnels said, “Alright, fine, fuck it. Just get out. Out right now,” as he prepared to discharge his Taser. The media has used this statement to make it appear that Officer Runnels didn’t care what happened to Masters. We believe that it came from Officer Runnels knowing that he had given Masters more than enough chances to comply without getting hurt, and Officer Runnels’ “Fuck it” probably happened when he asked himself why he continued to go out of his way to avoid causing Masters pain. Every moment that Masters was actively resisting and not under control was an extra opportunity for Masters to escalate to escape or violence, and Officer Runnels was wasting time by not using more force when it was warranted.

Unfortunately, Officer Runnels was faced with very poor circumstances with which to use a Taser. Masters was tucked into his vehicle, presenting a small target. In order to get a proper spread on the Taser probes, you need to create several feet of distance. If Officer Runnels moved to proper distance for a good spread, Masters’ position made it unlikely that both probes would connect. Also, in order to create distance, Officer Runnels would have to abandon the door that he was holding. Masters would then have easily been able to shut the door and escalate the situation further. Faced with these circumstances, Officer Runnels opted to deploy the taser only a couple of feet away from Masters.

Where Things Went Wrong

This is when we believe that Officer Runnels really made his first reasonable mistake. Officer Runnels aimed directly at Masters’ chest when he deployed the Taser. Using a Taser with a small spread on the chest is likely to be less effective than a leg. Taser International’s training also suggests considering dart-to-heart distance when deploying a Taser, in order to prevent the possibility of the Taser interfering with the heart; it’s not clear if Officer Runnels received this information in training as he was hired prior to the training update. Officer Runnels’ mistake in the Taser probe placement was a reasonable mistake that anybody could have made. Officers are trained to aim for the chest in firearms training, and most officers have shot thousands of rounds practicing aiming for the chest. Officers also do not consistently train on discharging a Taser cartridge; cartridges are expensive. In the heat of the moment, Officer Runnels’ firearms training likely took over as he aimed for Masters’ chest and pulled the trigger.

We will not be exploring if Tasers can induce cardiac arrest. As we are not doctors, we are not qualified to make such a determination. We will simply work off the knowledge that a direct chest shot is against training guidelines, so it’s a bad idea.

Upon being struck by the Taser probes, Masters became compliant and followed commands to exit the vehicle and get on the ground. This is where we believe Officer Runnels made his second reasonable mistake. Officer Runnels did not release the trigger. Based on the circumstances of this incident, there was no reason for Officer Runnels to not immediately release to trigger. Had he done so, the Taser would have stopped after five seconds. Had Masters continued to resist at that point, Officer Runnels could have pulled the trigger a second time. Instead, Officer Runnels held the trigger down for 23 seconds.

We’ve seen officers make this mistake before; usually when the Taser fails to work as expected. When an officer discharges a Taser, they hope to achieve NMI, which will lock up the suspect’s body. When the Taser doesn’t appear to be working properly, officers are supposed to quickly diagnose the problem and then correct it. Correction usually means either abandoning the used Taser cartridge and replacing it with a new one, or transitioning to a drive stun. However, it’s common to see officers hold the trigger down, as if asking themselves in the stress of the moment, “Why isn’t this working?” Without a good deal of Taser training, officers don’t have strong training to fall back on in stressful situations. This may result in an officer holding the trigger until the Taser works; it rarely does. Usually the failure occurs when the officer doesn’t get a good connection on both probes. Officer Runnels likely didn’t know this, but he had a good connection on both probes, however, he had a small spread in a relatively small muscle group. When Masters was struck, Officer Runnels was likely wondering why the Taser didn’t have any noticeable effect on Masters, besides his sudden compliance.

Officer Runnels dragging masters.

Officer Runnels dragging Masters.

After Masters was on the ground, he became limp and Officer Runnels placed him in handcuffs. Officer Runnels didn’t know this, but Masters was going through cardiac arrest. It would not occur to most police officers that the person who they just tased may be dying. Most officers who carry Tasers have been tased themselves, and have witnessed many colleagues and suspects getting tased with no ill-effect. The idea of somebody dying as a result of getting tased may make sense to the general public who have little to no experience with Tasers. However, to the experienced officer, a Taser death would seem about as alien as somebody dying after getting slapped. Our training and experience tells us that it just doesn’t happen.

After handcuffing Masters, Officer Runnels almost certainly thought that Masters had just transitioned from active resistance to passive resistance, and was purposefully going limp. Officer Runnels picked up Masters by his arms and dragged him out of the roadway. Officer Runnels was likely frustrated by a suspect who continued to resist, and he dropped Masters instead of setting him down. This was a serious mistake on Officer Runnels’ part. Officer Runnels likely couldn’t see past Masters to see exactly where Masters’ head might hit, but if you’re going to drop somebody, you better check the landing area first. Officer Runnels didn’t bother to check that he was dropping Masters’ head on the curb.

After Officer Runnels dropped Masters, he seemed oblivious to the fact that Masters’ head hit the curb. Officer Runnels continued speaking to Masters as if he were passively resisting. Officer Runnels reasonably assumed that the Taser wouldn’t cause Masters’ symptoms, “I’ve been tased a dozen times, it doesn’t act like that.” However, Officer Runnels should have considered that dropping someone’s head on the pavement might cause damage. Officer Runnels may not have considered it because Masters was exhibiting symptoms prior to being dropped. It took until the medics arrived before somebody recognized that Masters actually needed serious medical attention.

Laying Blame

Mistakes were made by Officer Runnels; that’s something everybody can seem to agree on. Masters now has permanent brain damage from this incident. A federal court has ruled that Timothy Runnels was at fault, and he will spend the next four years in federal prison for it. Upon examining Officer Runnels’ mistakes, we can see that while he did make mistakes, for the most part there is no sign of malicious intent.

Tasing Masters in the chest is something that Officer Runnels may not have known to avoid. Officer Runnels was hired in 2007 and Taser International’s training standards suggesting greater dart to heart distance didn’t come out until 2009. It is ludicrous to suggest that Officer Runnels knew that tasing somebody in the chest could interact with their heart, and that he maliciously decided to do so anyway.

We have seen officers hold down the trigger on Tasers when they don’t perceive their Tasers to be working properly; even if it is a bad idea. Although in almost every case, it’s a relatively harmless behavior. If only one probe is attached, then holding the trigger should be harmless to the suspect. If both probes are attached and there is a small spread, then you are only causing pain in one localized muscle group for the duration, and there should be no lasting impact.

Dropping Masters on his face was most likely not malicious, considering how oblivious Officer Runnels seemed to be to any damage that it may have caused, but it was stupid. And when you make stupid mistakes, and somebody ends up with brain damage, you are going to be held liable.

Bryce Masters

Bryce Masters

It’s also noteworthy that Masters made a big mistake as well. Masters willfully refused to follow lawful orders and resisted arrest. The fact that Masters has brain damage as a result of this incident seems to have exonerated his actions. And make no mistake, even though Masters was resisting, he should never have been dropped on his face and should not have to deal with brain damage for the rest of his life. However that does not absolve him of any responsibility. Masters committed several crimes, and he created a situation in which Officer Runnels had few reasonable alternatives to tasing him, of which, tasing was the most sensible option. Had Masters obeyed the law, none of this would have ever happened to him.

Surely at this point many readers are crying out that we’re victim blaming. Victim blaming is a horrible behavior in which people claim that the victim’s lawful activity caused them to be victimized. If a girl wears a skimpy outfit and walks though a dark alley at night, then she’s engaging in lawful activity that she has a right to do, and it’s not her fault if she’s victimized. The problem here is that Masters’ behavior was not lawful, and he was not a victim of anything until he was dropped on his face. If a criminal gives law enforcement no reasonable alternative to control them without using force, the police are not victimizing the suspects when they use force to control that person. Officer Runnels did not victimize Masters when he tased him, Officer Runnels was trying to control an actively resisting criminal, and the responsibility for that falls on Masters.

As reported on The Intercept:

As hard as it was to watch, Bryce felt vindicated. He had done exactly what his parents told him to do. “Nothing I could’ve done would have stopped him that day. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

That’s the kind of nonsensical attitude that got Mr. Masters into this situation. We wish Masters the best in his recovery, and we wish, just maybe, he’ll learn some personal responsibility as well.