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Videos show use of force at O.C. Jail

Deputies are seen striking and using a Taser on a handcuffed prisoner. They say he was resisting a search.

January 23, 2008|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

Orange County sheriff's deputies repeatedly shocked a handcuffed prisoner with a Taser, even after he had been strapped into a restraint chair, slammed him onto the floor with a "knee drop" and appeared to hit him in the head while he sat passively on a bench, jail videotapes show.

The grainy but graphic images from 2006 show Matthew Fleuret, 24, being put into a holding cell at Orange County Jail and held on the floor by at least five deputies, one of whom pulls Fleuret's arms back and sharply up toward his head while others repeatedly shock him with the Taser over a period of about 13 minutes. Fleuret's lawyer says he was hit 11 times with the stun gun during the incident.

In internal sheriff's reports obtained by The Times, deputies said they had to use force because Fleuret was intoxicated and uncooperative, and had resisted their efforts to further search him. The deputies can be heard telling him to stop resisting.

Experts on the use of force interviewed by The Times suggest the deputies violated widely accepted standards. "It does not look pretty," said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminology professor who has studied the issue for about 25 years.

Some of the Fleuret tapes are from stationary cameras that have no sound. A deputy shot another tape with a hand-held camera. In many instances, the cameras show only one angle.

Basing conclusions on tapes shot from a single angle can be "tricky," said Alpert, but he added that the deputies had "no apparent reason" to shock Fleuret with the Taser.

The Virginia-based International Assn. of Chiefs of Police has a model policy for Tasers that prohibits their use on handcuffed prisoners "absent overtly assaultive behavior that cannot be reasonably dealt with in any other less intrusive fashion."

Fleuret, a construction worker and handyman, was not prosecuted. He has no criminal record, his lawyers say. He was arrested in March 2006 on suspicion of obstructing a deputy after getting into a bar fight on St. Patrick's Day.

The tapes came to light as part of a civil rights lawsuit alleging excessive use of force that Fleuret filed in July against the county, seeking $47.5 million in damages.

The county has denied the allegations in the suit. Sheriff's Department spokesman Jim Amormino said he could not comment before reviewing the suit with county lawyers. He said information on the department's Taser policies was not available late Tuesday afternoon.

A digital copy of the recordings was given to The Times by Fleuret's lawyers, Stephen Bernard and David Brown, who alleged that the case reflected a long pattern of brutality in Orange County lockups. "The officers tortured him," Bernard said.

Fleuret, who now lives in Utah, declined to be interviewed. His mother, Carol Falk of Bakersfield, said he has lasting physical and psychological injuries and is unable to return to full-time construction work.

"He hasn't been right since," said Falk, an emergency room nurse. "The kid's on the verge of a nervous breakdown."

Alpert and other experts noted that tapes in alleged brutality cases have proved to be open to interpretation.

In several high-profile trials in recent years, juries that watched such tapes have acquitted law enforcement officers.

But the experts, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, added that the tapes indicate that the deputies in this case departed from standard practices.

David Klinger, a University of Missouri, St. Louis, criminology professor who focuses on use-of-force tactics, said that repeatedly shocking a restrained prisoner with a Taser "would not be appropriate" unless the prisoner posed an imminent threat.

Taunts alone are not enough to justify the use of force, he said.

Klinger, a former Los Angeles Police Department officer, did not view the Fleuret tapes.

Based on a description of them, however, he questioned why the deputies did not simply lock Fleuret in the cell.

"That's what I'd do -- put him in the cell, let him cool off," he said. "But I wasn't there. I don't know what the circumstances were."

Several experts also said the apparent blow to Fleuret's head and the knee drop to his neck seemed unwarranted.

"I don't think anyone is going to say this type of force is reasonable, unless there is something we're not seeing on the tapes," Alpert said.

The action seen on the tapes unfolds as follows:

Initially, Fleuret, shirtless and handcuffed behind his back, is standing at the "triage" counter, where a jail nurse examines him. After Fleuret is directed to sit on a bench, a deputy walks up behind him and appears to hit him in the head, although the tape is jumpy at that point.

A deputy's report says Fleuret "was trying to intimidate the other arrestee who was sitting on the bench next to him by staring at him."

It does not say that Fleuret was hit.

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