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Use of Tasers on restrained inmates in St. Louis County jail prompts calls for investigation

Use of Tasers on restrained inmates in St. Louis County jail prompts calls for investigation

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CLAYTON — St. Louis-area NAACP leaders called Wednesday on St. Louis County government to fire a white jail captain who on two occasions in June used a Taser to subdue Black inmates who were resisting restraints, and questioned whether there had been an effort to conceal the incidents before they started asking questions about them.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said the allegations were “disturbing” and said he had asked prosecutors to review the incidents for potential criminal charges.

NAACP leaders who gathered outside the troubled jail in downtown Clayton also called for more accountability in a facility connected to six inmate deaths since January 2019. They said jail leadership under Director Raul Banasco has persistently stonewalled an advisory board that Page had set up one year ago.

Two members of the board who attended the news conference said in interviews that the Page administration does not give them enough authority or access to provide meaningful oversight of the jail — repeating a complaint some of the board’s seven members made even before Page appointed Banasco in November.

Last month, the director told the County Council that he did not consult with the board or thoroughly check references of a vendor he selected for a $2 million contract for inmates’ meals and some job training, despite reports the company has had problems in other states.

“The advisory committee is not being allowed to hold people accountable,” the board’s chairman, the Rev. Phillip Duvall, said. He called on Page to issue an executive order to “free us” by giving the board “more teeth and strength to look into these issues.”

Duvall and another member, Twyla Lee, said the board should have been advised of the Taser incidents at the board’s most recent meeting on June 26. Duvall said that in recent days he was approached by people with information about the incidents and, acting “as a citizen,” he connected them with the NAACP.

Although the Taser incidents occurred in June, each with several witnesses, it did not appear that disciplinary steps had been initiated until the NAACP turned up the heat in recent days.

Duvall said, “I’m not speaking as the chair of the board, I’m speaking as a citizen, I’m speaking as a Black man that had to witness what happened (to George Floyd). I can’t breathe. So why would I sit here quiet in this time and era to hear about a correctional officer, I don’t care what color they are, that are tasing females that are already restrained? I’m not going to sit idly by and say nothing.”

John Bowman, president of the county NAACP, said Black people were dealing with two pandemics, COVID-19 and “COVID-1619,” a reference to the year a ship carrying 20 enslaved Africans arrived in the English colony of Virginia.

“We find ourselves being totally disrespected and being treated with a lack of dignity simply because you are vulnerable and you can not speak up and defend yourself,” he said.

Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis NAACP, said his group has “no idea how much more of this is going on because we’re on the outside. But even the oversight board does not have the ability to find out how much more is going on.”

The Post-Dispatch had on Tuesday submitted a request to Banasco and a Page spokesman to interview the two inmates who had been subdued with the stun gun; neither responded.

Sam Alton, the chief of staff for Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, said Page asked their office Tuesday night to determine whether crimes were committed.

In a prepared statement on Wednesday, Page said he had also asked the St. Charles County Department of Corrections internal affairs investigators to review the case and see if policies or procedures were violated. He said the results would be shared with Banasco and the advisory board.

Page did not explain why he was asking another county jail to investigate the cases. Pruitt said he was told Banasco had not been made aware of the cases until he happened upon officers reviewing video and asked what they were doing.

The correctional officer at the center of the incidents, whom Banasco had recently promoted to captain, was demoted back to lieutenant on Monday and placed on unpaid leave. He hung up the phone on a reporter who called him. Banasco did not respond to a request for comment.

The Rev. Linden Bowie, president of the Missionary Baptist State Convention of Missouri, asked, “Is there some type of cover-up going on? Is there some kind of effort to maintain the culture as it exists while trying to placate the public? What’s going on here at the Justice Center?”

Incident reports

The Post-Dispatch obtained “use of force” reports written by the captain that detailed the incidents on June 1 and June 10 in his own words. The documents did not explain why either inmate had been in restraints, but the NAACP leaders said both inmates had histories of mental illness.

The June 1 incident involved a man in his early 20s who was held on a rape charge out of Vinita Park. The case was suspended June 24 to allow time for him to have a mental evaluation, according to court records.

The captain reported the inmate had been held in a restraint chair for more than 10 hours and was refusing “many opportunities” to stand up.

When the captain and a lieutenant tried to make the inmate stand up, the inmate spit in the captain’s face. After a “spit mask” was applied, the inmate refused “numerous directives” to get back into the restraint chair, the captain used a Taser on his right thigh to make him sit back down, he wrote.

The inmate’s attorney, Brice Donnelly, said: “If what you are saying is true that my client was in restraints and Tased, we find that deeply disturbing and we look forward to reviewing a full investigation from (the county justice services department) or some other department, and after I’ve reviewed that, I may have further comment.”

The June 10 incident involved a 23-year-old woman who had been charged a day earlier with first-degree trespassing. Police said a homeowner in north St. Louis County called police after finding the woman, a stranger, inside the home. A basement window had been shattered, and a stolen car was found parked in the garage.

The captain wrote that he was called to the infirmary because she was in a restraint chair trying to free her right hand from behind her back and remove her spit mask. The captain said he called for assistance to make the inmate stand up so she could be readjusted. She refused orders from staff to put her hands behind her back when she sat down and lifted her torso to resist the waist strap.

The captain wrote that he used a Taser twice on the inmate’s right thigh and three times on the left thigh before officers were able to place her back in the chair.

It was not immediately clear if the incidents violated policies on the use of force or restraints. The department allows use of force, restraints and riot equipment only when necessary, and requires the least amount of force to be used to overcome resistance.

Officers may use force to defend themselves; prevent escapes; prevent the destruction of county property; restrain an inmate who poses an immediate danger to himself or others or who persistently throws water, urine, feces or spits on staff and will not cease the behavior after verbal counseling and warnings are given; search or move an uncooperative inmate or break up a fight between inmates.

Officers are supposed to comply with a “use of force continuum.” Stun guns may be used if the inmate does not respond to verbal instructions, soft empty hands, or if pepper spray has failed, is not medically appropriate or not immediately available to restrain an inmate.

Updated at 5:30 p.m.

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