There is a troubling case out of Boiling Spring Lake, North Carolina, where a family says that police were called to assist them with their son, Keith Vidal, 18, who was having a schizophrenic episode. After tasering and holding down the boy, an officer shot and killed him. The family says that the police pointed out that he had a screwdriver but they say that the screwdriver was tiny and could not have hurt anyone and that Vidal, who was being held down by multiple officers, was only 90 pounds.
The lawyer for one officer insisted that the media has gotten the story wrong but, after calling the media to his office, declined to give specifics. There is overlap in the public accounts however. Detective Bryon Vassey has been placed on leave in connection to his involvement in the shooting that occurred after police arrived at the house at 12:34 p.m. The original officer was joined by two other officers after the first unit reported a confrontation in the hallway. Radio calls said that the matter was under control but then just 70 seconds later, Unit 104 radioed out that he had to fire shots at the subject in order to defend himself.
The family says that Vidal was tasered repeatedly and pinned on the ground. They insist that an officer said, “we don’t have time for this” and shot the boy between the officers holding him down. Vidal was a high school student who had no history of harming or threatening others.
Indeed, according to stories, the family says that the father was prevented from disarming the boy. Their account states that, when the first officer entered the home, Vidal was abrasive and grabbed a small electronics screwdriver. However, two officers began to negotiate with him and calm him down. But the family says that another officer from a neighboring jurisdiction entered and “instructed the officers to stop talking and Tase Vidal.” When Vidal turned to leave, the officers tasered him and he collapsed backwards as the officers jumped on top of him. They then say that “Vidal’s father tried to step in and grab the screw driver” but the Southport police officer who had instructed the other officers to use their Tasers is quoted as saying “we don’t have time for this” and shot Vidal in the chest.
The case raises obvious questions of the necessity of excessive force, a question that we have seen in other cases of elderly or disoriented individuals (here and here and here and here and here). The concern is often magnified in comparison to other countries with much lower rates of police shootings. It is important to get the officers’ account on these cases but thus far the department is releasing little new information. Officers often have to act with only seconds to consider their options. However, this is a case of a small kid who has been repeatedly tasered and was actually being restrained by at least two officers. Indeed, when I first read the coverage (and given the alleged comment of the officer just before the shooting), I thought we had another case of an officer confusing his gun with his taser. Yet, the family insists that the officer said that he had to protect his fellow officers with the use of lethal force.
These cases often end up in litigation, particularly when the family is unable to get a full account from the officers. Under Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985), lethal force is permissible when a law enforcement officer is pursuing a fleeing suspect if the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others. Obviously, an officer can use lethal force to protect himself or his partners or others from serious harm or death. Yet, an electronic screwdriver held by a 90 pound boy in this circumstance does raise serious questions of excessive force in my view.
Kudos: Steve Katinsky