Why the shooting of Eric Harris was not justified

Eric-HarrisLast Friday, the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department held a press conference to explain why the shooting of Eric Harris was justified and consistent with protocols.

The department also released a video of the incident.

While the video supports the claim that Harris was shot by a deputy who believed that he was using a Taser, it is equally clear that the deputy never should have fired at Harris in the first place – even with a Taser, especially a Taser in dart-mode.

For those not familiar with the events, Harris was shot and killed by 73 year old Tulsa County Reserve Deputy Robert Bates, who fired his handgun at Harris believing it was a Taser.

But that is not the sum total of what appears on the video– when Bates fired his weapon, Harris was already on the ground and subjected to tactical holds as he’s surrounded and held down by two to three supporting officers.

Based on the superior numbers, weaponry, and apparent control over the situation already exerted by the other officers, there was no reason for Bates to escalate the use of force even further by introducing a Taser.

This concept is well-recognized throughout the law: use of force must be justified, and officers are not permitted to summarily jump to a higher rung on the use of force ladder where a lesser amount of force will suffice. See Aldaba v. Pickens, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 1822 (10th Cir. February 4, 2015).

To make the situation even more problematic, Bates intended to use his Taser in dart-mode, the setting where the device fires two barbed probes that embed themselves in the target to deliver an electrical charge.

In this setting, the target must be far enough away for the darts to fully deploy and separate before hitting the target. Warnings issued by Taser International suggest a distance of at least three to five feet. If the target is too close, the electrical current may fail.

Furthermore, because the user must account for probe spread after firing, using the Taser in dart mode runs the risk of hitting and incapacitating a fellow officer if fired in close proximity to others, which can allow the suspect to gain an advantage and possibly escape.

But even assuming the circumstances did warrant use of a Taser, it was ceratinly not appropriate to use the device in dart mode.  The Taser has a setting that is more appropriate in close combat situations, like the one seen in the Harris video.

In a drive-stun mode the user places the Taser on the suspect and pulls the trigger to activate the charge. In this mode, the user does not risk hitting a bystander, and there is no risk of electrical failure.

The video released by the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department does not provide any evidence to support escalating the use of force by introducing a Taser, and the suggestion that Taser use in this scenario, especially in dart-mode, complied with department protocols, is strong evidence that the sheriff’s department needs to review and overhaul its policies.

If you have questions about this article, or use of force scenarios, contact the attorneys at Bryan & Terrill, 918-935-2777.