The Masters Case Is About Runells
This piece has been edited. I have strengthened my opinion that this is not about the tool, but the operator. I have moved to a sidebar technical detail about TASER function so that it doesn't distract from the flow (such as it is :) ). I have spoken with journalists who have provided me with some additional context, inadmissable at trial, that solidifies my disgust with the officer's behavior.
Last week we heard about former Independence, MO, police officer Timothy Runnels being sentenced to four years in a federal prison. Runnels had pled guilty to violating the civil rights of 17-year-old Bryce Masters during a traffic stop in 2014. Masters has suffered brain damage and injuries that have by any measure changed his quality of life in horrible ways.
In this post, I refer repeatedly to information I obtained by watching the raw, but abbreviated dashcam video, as well as witness video, of the event.
There are lessons here for police and for civilians. Mainly for police. I think this case should be studied in every police academy in America. My conclusion is that those who focus on the TASER are focusing on the wrong thing. I am focusing on the user.
In a written statement, the US attorney for the Western District of Missouri, Tammy Dickinson, said that Runnels’ “...use of excessive force violated both the public’s trust and his oath to uphold the law. Police officers are not above the law and will be held accountable when they violate the civil rights of the citizens they are sworn to protect and serve.”
Dickinson is right. There is absolutely no doubt that, during the stop, Runnels had effected “constructive custody,” which is to say that Masters understood that he was not free to leave. Constructive custody of a person describes circumstances in which a person who is not under direct physical control, but whose freedom is controlled by legal authority (in this case Runnels’).
From our book: “You are in my custody from the moment I take control of you, in a situation from which you are not legally permitted to leave of your own free will.” After that, Runnels placed Masters into actual custody, by handcuffing him. There's simply no question that Runnels was responsible for the reasonable care of Masters.
It is important to remember that Runnels did get a local warrant hit on the vehicle - meaning that the in-car computer told Runnels that the vehicle's license plate number was listed on an outstanding misdemeanor traffic arrest warrant. Taking everyone at their word, we must also remember, this “hit” is on the vehicle and not on the person. However the officer did believe that there was a good chance that the driver was wanted on traffic warrants. Traffic warrants are in fact arrest warrants, but they are certainly not major crimes and they are certainly not violent crimes.
As I review the video I see certain things that the officer did in a manner that would lead to his being reprimanded at my agency. First, at no time did he identify himself or his purpose. He walked up to the passenger side of Masters’ car, whose passenger window was only open a crack. This is in fact sufficient for most identifications, but is considered by officers to be at a minimum rude and disrespectful.
Runnels then walks to the driver side door, and opens it. We then hear Runnels, without statement of why, give a lawful order to Masters to get out of the vehicle. There are many reasons why this was a lawful command. I am not saying Runnels was not being an asshole (he was absolutely being an asshole). I am saying that he was reasonable and lawful in ordering Masters to get out of the car.
The simplest explanation for this is that Masters had been non-cooperative, and Runnels was under an obligation to investigate whether Masters was the party wanted in the warrants. While all incidents are different, in this case, it would seem to me that Runnels decided that to leave an uncooperative person in a car during this investigation could be dangerous – who knows what is in the vehicle? It is sometimes better for the officer to take Masters out of the car and conduct his investigation - and that seems consistent with what we see here.
Masters seems to have watched too many YouTube videos. He continues to ask, “Am I under arrest?” In fact, at first he was not under arrest, he was being lawfully ordered to get out of the vehicle. Here it would have been just very helpful had the officer explained things – but there are very good arguments as to why the officer did not want to take the time to explain things, starting with the fact that Runnels may have feared for his own safety in leaving Masters in the vehicle. His choices in how he handled this were, in my opinion, wrong.
Runnels continued to tell Masters to get out of the car, and Masters continued to refuse to get out of the car, instead asking repeatedly, “Am I under arrest?” At one point, this crazed and defective OODA loop was broken when Runnels said, “Yes, you are under arrest.”
Now, Masters once again falls victim to bad YouTube lawyering. Instead of complying with the statement of a uniformed officer that (a) he was required to get out of the car and (b) that he was under arrest, Masters decided to attempt to hold court on the side of the road. Now he wanted to know why he was under arrest before complying.
Whether Masters was correct in his interpretation of his Constitutional rights, he placed himself in danger by doing this. He was at this point arguing with an armed, increasingly angry and hostile man acting irresponsibly under the color of the law. The time to address this is later – through complaints, lawsuits and FOIA requests of the dashcam video.
So let me be clear: Runnels was being an asshole, and so was Masters. Masters, whose father is a police officer, should have known better. And Runnels was in my opinion within the technical limits of his authority but man, there are so many better ways to do this. And to be more clear: from a legal standoint, and just from the standpoint of being a man, the responsibility in this case to be not an asshole rested squarely upon Runnels.
I want to remind everyone that, at the time of the incident, Masters was not known by Runnels to be wanted for any crime; Runnels had suspicion that Masters was wanted on a misdemeanor, non-violent traffic warrant (I have served literally hundreds of these and only had someone fight me on one occasion – an occasion during which I used my hands and not my TASER to control him). There was no exigency; no burning need to get Masters out of the vehicle. Runnels had no reason to believe that Masters was armed.
It is therefore my personal belief that Runnels tried and convicted Masters on the spot of that old saw, POP – “Pissin’ off po-lice.”
What bothers me enormously is what happens when Runnels takes Masters out of the vehicle with the TASER. I understand that Masters was holding on to the steering wheel and trying to stay in the vehicle. I reject entirely the idea that Runnels could not find another, more appropriate way to get Masters out of the vehicle. I only have a couple of years of experience on the streets and I know three ways I could have likely got Masters to comply without resorting to my TASER. I have personally used them.
What we see on the video next is Runnels firing his TASER at Masters, then pulling Masters out of the vehicle and placing Masters facedown in the road. The next thing we see is my first moment of nausea in this case. I cannot believe I am going to say this but the best description of what I see next is what is written in the indictment, United States of America v. Runnels, Count Three:
“Specifically, the defendant continuously deployed a Taser against B.M. while B.M. was on the ground and not posing a threat to the defendant or others. The offense involved the use of a dangerous weapon and resulted in bodily injury to B.M. All in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Sections 242.”
What I think I see and hear is that the TASER did not make full contact - the loud clacking noise is one clue, as is Masters' ability to get out of the car. When he hits the ground, it seems the TASER probes make full contact.
What I first see that really disturbs me is a 20-second TASER exposure against a person not fighting or resisting, but rather laying flat on the ground, while Runnels stands over himParenthetically: police TASER devices typically do not allow the officer to “stack” exposures – that is, in my agency, I cannot simply pull the trigger four times in rapid succession and allow the TASER to fire for 20-seconds. So in order to give Masters that 20-second “ride,” in what I understand is the majority of TASER installations, Runnels would have been required to wait until the first five-second pre-timed exposure ended, then make a conscious and knowing decision to pull the trigger again; and repeat this until the fourth five-second pre-timed exposure ended. Another possibility that shows even less responsibility by Runnels than that - it is possible he simply intentionally held the trigger down for those 20-some seconds. We'd need to see the TASER data to know. Another possibility was that Runnels was able to “stack” exposures by pulling the trigger multiple times - but in fact, it doesn't matter: what Runnels did was illegal and unethical. It would be like complaining about fruit if Runnels beat Masters with a sack of oranges..
What is clear as day is that Masters wasn't resisting when he was on the ground, and the TASER application was intentional, unnecessary and unwarranted, out of policy and against the law.
During the time in which the Masters is on the ground, Runnels orders Masters – a person in a state of neuromuscular incapacitation, or NMI – to comply with orders not physically possible: “Put your hands behind your back.” Having been in a state of NMI myself during TASER training I can tell you that it was exceptionally difficult for me to move any part of my body other than tapping my feet. For me, it would have been impossible to comply with an order to carry out a movement involving even gross motor skill like placing my hands behind my back.
We then see Runnels handcuff Masters. What happens next is something that I suppose happens often but I would never do. It is debatable as to whether Masters ever posed a safety threat to Runnels. However, regardless of whether he was a threat, after he was TASERED and handcuffed, there is simply no way to articulate that Masters was any longer any threat. Additionally, as we can see from the angle of the police car relative to Masters’ car, there was little danger of either being hit by another vehicle, despite their position in the road – Runnels certainly exhibited no overt concern for traffic during the 20 second TASER exposure. About the only thing Runnels did right here was radio in that he had deployed his TASER and ask for an ambulance, per policy.
My training here would have me roll Masters onto his back, and gently lift him into a sitting position with his legs in front of him. I would then talk him through the motions and assist him to stand up and walk to the curb. I would likely pat him down for weapons and then sit him on the hood of my vehicle and continue the investigation.
Instead, Runnels lifted Masters in a painful control technique, lifting Masters’ arms behind him and dragging Masters, whose unprotected knees were scraped along the sidewalk for about ten feet. And then we see the worst moment of all, when Runnels lifts Masters even higher, and the dumps Masters face first into the sidewalk. Much of this is out of camera view. None of this is consistent with the protection of a prisoner in the custody of an officer.
I take issue with the statements by a doctor and bystanders and the media that the TASER caused cardiac arrest.
According to reporting by Nick Bernardini and Matt Stroud in The Intercept, Dr. Stanley Augustin, the chief trauma surgeon at the hospital treating Masters, told Masters' father that, “The Taser did this. He took a shot right to the heart, and that sent him into cardiac arrest.”
I have no idea of this doctor's experience with TASER or his training, but I would point out two things; the photo here shows the TASER dart entry points are not consistent with a shot “right to the heart” (unless Masters is a 50-year old Finnish alcoholic with severely enlarged heart); and also, there was earlier reporting that Masters suffered from “...swelling that may have been caused by hitting his head on the concrete or losing oxygen for a long period of time.” Witness Michelle Baker told KCTV 5 that, “It looked like he hit his head on the concrete. You could see blood coming out of his mouth. The cop put his foot on his back and moved it back and forth like he was putting a cigarette out and asked him, ‘are you ready to get up now?’ You could tell the kid was going into convulsions.”
Am I saying it is impossible that a TASER led to cardiac arrest? I am not. There are studies that say that has happenedZipes, Douglas P. “TASER electronic control devices can cause cardiac arrest in humans.” Circulation 129.1 (2014): 101-111., and in the course of researching our book we saw one autopsy that pointed to the TASER as the sole cause of death.
I am saying something more subtle.
If I am to choose between likely causes of serious bodily injury and the choice is (a) a device used in more than 1.4 million field applications with without any credible evidence of a resulting cardiac arrhythmia, or at any rate, exceptionally few fatalities (on the order of hundredths of one percent of the total)Kroll, Mark W. “Physiology and pathology of TASER® electronic control devices.” Journal of forensic and legal medicine 16.4 (2009): 173-177.; or (b) an officer dragging someone and then slamming him face first into a sidewalk, I must say that Occam’s Razor will get me toward the latter each and every time.
That’s why I consider the illegal and out of policy TASER exposure, in fact, to be the least heinous of Runnels’ acts on this day. As even Masters’ father originally told the Intercept, “As a police officer, his opinion about whether Tasers could kill mirrored the standard explanation he and his fellow officers had heard from the company’s trainers, that Tasers causing cardiac arrest was just a tall tale concocted by attorneys and the media to disparage a useful police weapon. ‘Nah, that can’t even happen,’ he remembered saying.”
As Ed Flosi states in our book, “Deadly force is defined as: violent action known to create a substantial risk of causing death or serious bodily harm. (Black’s Law Dictionary). Many legal experts agree that ‘substantial risk’ means that it is more likely than not.”
I believe, then, that Matt Masters’ statement to The Intercept is a perfect statement about why police using a TASER don’t think that they are going to create any lasting damage: they do not believe that using a TASER has a substantial risk (more likely than not) of causing serious bodily injury or death – and in this, regardless of where you stand on the TASER issue, the officers are simply factually correct.
Where I am sickened by Runnels’ actions is when he drags and then throws Masters to the ground. No one can tell me that he did not expect that to cause serious bodily injury. The witness statements about the blood, and the audible moans from Masters on the police dashcam recording should have been enough at least for Runnels to call for the ambulance to get to the scene faster.
For police officers and administrators, I think the lessons are clear: the need for training on non-deadly force, suspect handling, and most of all, de-escalation. For citizens, protest is good, but it should not cross the line into disobeying lawful orders. Don’t get me wrong: nothing Bryce Masters did made him deserving of his treatment by Runnels. But Masters’ decisions and behavior during the beginning of this car stop were inappropriate and ultimately served to escalate an escalating situation. I believe that citizens should record their encounters with law enforcement, speak clearly and respectfully, obey lawful orders and complain about each and every perceived violation ... after the incident has ended.