A police chief and city review board were within their rights to terminate the employment of an officer who repeatedly used a Taser on a 64-year-old nursing home patient. An appellate panel Monday reversed a trial court order that had thrown out the officer’s firing.
Peru Police Chief Steve Hoover recommended dismissal of Officer Gregory Martin for excessive use of force against James Howard, a resident of the Alzheimer’s ward of Miller’s Merry Manor. The city’s Board of Works and Public Safety conducted a hearing and agreed Martin used excessive force and was fired.
Police had been called to the nursing home to assist transporting a patient to the hospital after he became combative toward a roommate and staff, but staff testified Howard had been medicated and somewhat subdued when police arrived. Howard was sitting naked in a chair and staring straight ahead when Martin and another officer arrived, according to the opinion in Peru City Police Department and City of Peru v. Gregory Martin, 52A02-1304-PL-350.
Nursing home staff believed Howard could have been controlled without the use of a Taser, but officers and paramedics, including Martin’s fiancée, disagreed, according to the record. Officer Jeremy Brindle, who accompanied Martin, conceded that he and Martin likely could have gained control over Howard had each grabbed a wrist.
But when Brindle attempted to grab one of Howard’s wrists, he resisted and began “shuffling” toward Martin, who yelled “Taser.” Martin used the Taser device on Howard five times, according to the Taser’s data printout. The record indicates that Howard was exposed to 31 seconds of Taser force in one minute with five separate deployments lasting five to 11 seconds each.
“Chief Hoover recommended Martin’s dismissal due to his opinion that Martin had used excessive force and due to alleged inconsistencies between Martin’s initial report and his statements during the internal investigation,” Judge Mark Bailey wrote for the panel, noting a report said no “touch stuns” were administered.
Martin appealed, and the trial court threw out his firing. Miami Superior Special Judge Richard Maughmer entered more than 100 “reasons that the decision should not be affirmed,” finding the termination unsupported by the evidence and the firing arbitrary and capricious.
But the panel found that the trial court erred in substituting its judgment for that of the city police chief and board and that it disregarded ample evidence that supported the firing for cause. The panel focused on training Martin received that limits someone’s exposure to Taser force, which can be deadly when used for extended periods or in repeated bursts in which the subject isn’t allowed time to comply.
“Although greater (cumulative) duration than 15 seconds is not absolutely prohibited, the training materials repeatedly reference 15 seconds as an important benchmark,” Bailey wrote. “… Here, the benchmark time was more than doubled – in five applications inflicted upon an elderly naked man in a nursing home, imminently destined for a hospital. Intervals to achieve compliance were very short, with only a two-second interval between the third and fourth deployments. Moreover, it is noteworthy that Howard was handcuffed after the third Taser application.
“In sum, there is substantial evidence supporting the Board’s decision. … The trial court disregarded evidence favorable to that decision, credited the testimony of witnesses that the trial court did not personally hear, and misstated evidence regarding the scope of Martin’s training,” Bailey wrote. “In short, the trial court reweighed the evidence and reassessed the credibility of witnesses. Substantial evidence supports the Board’s findings, and its decision to terminate Martin for use of excessive force and conduct unbecoming an officer was not arbitrary and capricious.”