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Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 12:01 am

Lawsuit jolts race

Sheriff candidates talk Tasers

A former inmate who says he was wrongly tasered has sparked debate in the upcoming election for sheriff.
PHOTO BY RED HUBER /MCT

 

A lawsuit filed by a man who says that he was tasered by Sangamon County jail guards while helpless from a seizure has catapulted Tasers into the Republican primary race for sheriff.

The sheriff’s office now faces at least five lawsuits filed by plaintiffs who accuse Taser-toting deputies or jailers of using excessive force. In the most recent one, Richard E. Haley, Jr., who was serving time for a misdemeanor domestic battery charge, says that he was suffering from an epileptic seizure last March when guards tased him and deployed pepper spray after he did not come out of his cell when ordered.

Undersheriff Jack Campbell, who is facing Wes Barr in the Republican primary for sheriff, defends jailers.

“Just because someone files a lawsuit doesn’t make it true,” Campbell said. “We did nothing wrong. The allegations in that lawsuit are going to be proven without merit.”

The day after Haley sued in federal court on Feb 12, Barr promised that he would review the department’s Taser policies and training practices within 30 days of taking office.

“If we find that leadership encouraged inappropriate Taser use in the jail, taxpayers should be outraged about the possibility of having to pay millions of dollars in legal fees and settlements,” Barr said in a written statement.

Besides the lawsuit filed by Haley, Barr said that taxpayers should be concerned about a lawsuit filed by the widow of A. Paul Carlock, who died in 2006 after a scuffle in the jail with guards who deployed Tasers. And he criticized Campbell for once allowing subordinates to tase him if they caught him not wearing his dress uniform.

“It’s not a toy to be played with,” Barr said in an interview.

Despite issuing a press release in which he questioned the competency of leadership in the sheriff’s office and called for more accountability on Taser use, Barr said that he doesn’t question the jailers who tased Haley.

“I fully support the corrections officers,” Barr said. “I’m not saying that anyone did anything wrong. When something like this comes up, we should review our training and make sure we’re doing everything we can to help people do their job.”

The county has spent more than $2.3 million defending the Carlock lawsuit, which was set for trial this month until the county appealed a ruling in which U.S. District Court Judge Sue Myerscough rejected arguments that some individual defendants could not be sued. The case is now on hold, with the parties scheduled to meet with a mediator next month in hopes of reaching a settlement.

Barr, who says he hasn’t read any lawsuits alleging that Taser use by deputies or jailers constituted excessive force, won’t say whether he believes the county should settle the Carlock case.

“I intend to win (the election) and most of them are still pending and I will be involved,” Barr explained. “I don’t want to be making any statements that will jeopardize the case.”

Campbell says Taser use by sheriff’s employees who began carrying the devices in 2004 has plummeted in recent years, from 51 incidents in 2008 to nine times last year. He attributes the drop to potential targets obeying commands because they’ve learned to fear the device. Deputies and jailers are also using more discretion, he says.

“The guys are being a little more careful about deploying it,” Campbell said.

The undersheriff also points out that the county prevailed last spring in a federal lawsuit filed by a woman and her son who claimed a deputy used excessive force when he deployed a Taser while arresting them in 2007. It took a jury less than 45 minutes to decide in the county’s favor.

Campbell bristles at Barr’s criticism of him for allowing deputies to use Tasers on him in the workplace. Allowing the troops to tase their boss built camaraderie, he says, and it was done in a controlled environment.

Each candidate has reservations about supplying deputies and jailers with camera-equipped Tasers.Not all cops feel that way, however. Tasers carried by Illinois State Police troopers, for instance, are equipped with cameras.

Both candidates say that cameras on Tasers don’t start until a situation is already well underway, so it’s impossible for a viewer to see what conduct prompted Taser use.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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