'Excessive Use of Force,' Part 2: Tasings, Betrayal and Police ‘Oversight’

Posted

The fired police officer attempting to get his job back at the Centralia Police Department had an extensive history of excessively Tasing people involved in minor criminal offenses that spanned several years. 

While Phillip Reynolds documented his Taser use in his police reports, as required by the department’s policy, the information he included was often vague, incomplete and — as it was later determined — dishonest.

The former department policy that detailed what officers were required to include in their police reports regarding their Taser use prior to 2011, however, was minimal. It was only two sentences long.

A Taser has a computer chip that records time, length and the date of every use. Prior to 2011, Centralia officers uploaded their Taser data once a year. The information was then sent to a commander tasked with reviewing it. That commander is now retired, and it is unclear if he even looked at the information.

If he had, he would have seen that Reynolds, who already had a troubled disciplinary record, often used his Taser for extraordinary lengths of time, and often more than once.

“Was there oversight? The answer is yes,” said Centralia Police Chief Bob Berg. “We should have done a better job.”

Reynolds was fired in March 2012 after a series of internal investigations revealed more than a dozen substantial policy violations. Now, after a two-year appeals process, Centralia may be forced to re-employ Reynolds if an arbitrator rules in favor of the former officer. The city would also have to pay him about $150,000 in retroactive pay.

The Chronicle made multiple attempts to contact Reynolds earlier this week. He did not return any requests for comment.

 

In 2009 — more than three years after Reynolds began working for Centralia — he responded to a report of a drunken man sleeping in the public bathroom in Fort Borst Park.

According to Reynolds’ police report: It was Dec. 3 — the middle of winter — and cold outside. The bathroom was heated, and the drunken man told Reynolds he was taking a “booze snooze.” 

He reeked of alcohol, and when Reynolds told the man he needed to pour out the beer and leave the park, the man refused. Reynolds told him he would be arrested and the man turned away, putting his hands out of view. So Reynolds Tased him. 

Tasers send an electrical current through the body, overriding the body’s neuromuscular system. The 50,000 volts cause the person’s muscles to seize, often making the person lose control of their body and incapable of resisting further. The electricity causes enormous pain, and sometimes makes the person urinate due to loss of muscle control.

Officers are not allowed to use their Tasers as punitive action — they are meant to be used as a tool to gain compliance, particularly in a dangerous situation. Due to their force, officers are trained to administer one, five-second shock and then give the person a chance to obey police orders.

According to Reynolds’ arrest report, after the first Tasing, the intoxicated man put his hands out of view a second time so Reynolds Tased him again. After that, Reynolds arrested him for two misdemeanors: second-degree criminal trespass and resisting arrest. He also wrote a citation for consuming liquor in public.

 

But Reynolds’ police report did not tell the whole story.

Reynolds had not Tased the drunken man twice — he did it three times. The first Tasing lasted five seconds. The second Tasing, a few minutes later, lasted 21 seconds. Shortly after that, for unknown reasons, Reynolds Tased him for an additional 11 seconds.

Reynolds’ report also neglected to mention the drunken man had been sleeping in a locked bathroom stall — which meant Reynolds went into the adjacent stall and talked to him over the partition. To Tase him, Reynolds reached over the wall and shot the Taser’s dart probes downward.

Two years went by before Reynolds’ supervisors looked at the data on his Taser and realized the discrepancy. 

In 2011, when asked about why Reynolds failed to mention the third Tasing in his report, the six-year police officer reportedly replied with: “Sometimes in the heat of the battle, you lose track of things.”

 

Dec. 3, 2009 was not the first time Reynolds had Tased someone for a questionable duration of time — nor would it be the last. 

The Chronicle reviewed hundreds of pages of documents from Reynolds’ personnel and disciplinary file, as well as police reports, internal investigations and department policy, and found that it was not until he Tased three people under questionable circumstances within one month that the administration began to see a problem.

On March 3, 2011, Reynolds Tased a handcuffed man confined in the back of his patrol car. Twelve days later, he Tased a woman resisting arrest twice without issuing a verbal warning before doing so — violating department protocol.

Seven days after that, on March 22, Reynolds chased a teen who ran away from a hit and run collision. As he ran, Reynolds Tased the boy in the back for 10 seconds. The teen fell, hit his head on the pavement, fractured his skull, sustaining severe head and facial injuries. Reynolds told investigators he did not notice the boy was injured and having a seizure. He then Tased him a second time for five more seconds.

A use-force review board investigated the third Tasing and concluded that Reynolds’ Taser use against the teen was justified. The Chronicle has filed additional public disclosure requests with the city regarding this incident, but has not yet received a response.

During the internal investigation into Reynolds’ March 3 Tasing, the chief looked at the data from Reynolds’ Taser and learned the officer had Tased the handcuffed man confined in his patrol car three times for a total of 30 seconds.

The discovery was alarming, and prompted the agency to re-examine several of Reynolds’ past Tasings, including the drunken man in the bathroom.

By the time Berg reviewed the data in 2011, Reynolds had Tased numerous people for significant lengths of time and had omitted that information in his reports. Reynolds Tased 11 people between May 2009 and March 2011, according to a document in the 2011 internal investigation.

In many of the incidents, Reynolds Tased the individual more than once. In almost every instance, the duration of the Tasing lasted longer than the typical five seconds  — sometimes up to 30 seconds at a time.

The 2011 internal investigations concluded his Taser use against the drunk, as well as with many others, was excessive, and he needlessly escalated a reaction to a minor crime that “could have gotten either the officer or the suspect seriously hurt.”

 

The discovery shocked the small department and angered many of Reynolds’ coworkers, leaving many with a feeling of betrayal.

“We hire good people and we trust they are doing the right thing,” said Commander Jim Rich.

Part of the issue was the policy detailing the reporting requirements for Taser use. It required the officer to write a report and include the number of times the subject was Tased — but not much more.

The use of force policy for the Centralia Police Department has been updated three times between 2008 and 2012. Most notably, the section about the officer’s reporting requirements is much more in-depth. Now an officer must report the duration of the Tasing, all verbal warnings given, as well as a detailed set of circumstances that led up to the Tasing.

While not all of the changes in the policy were the sole result of Reynolds’ actions, he contributed to a significant part of the change, Rich said. Now, when an officer uses a Taser, the data from the device is uploaded and reviewed immediately.

Another significant contributor to the oversight was simply trust.

“You tend to take an officer at their word,” Berg said.

Reynolds’ judgment was trusted by his fellow officers, the administration, the court system and ultimately the community. Now, if he gets his job back, it is unclear how an officer with a documented history of dishonesty would be received by fellow officers.

Reynolds’ behavior also prompted the administration to review all the other officers’ Taser uses, Berg said.

“Through all these investigations, we have not found any inappropriate use of the Taser by any other officer in the (police department),” Berg said.

After Reynolds’ termination in 2012, the annual number of Taser deployments dropped, the chief said.

Berg said Centralia officers work hard to serve their community. The rest do not deserve to be compared to Reynolds, he said.

“It saddens me how people will interpret this as it relates to the other hard working men and women in the police department who do their job everyday and who do it with professionalism,” Berg said.