Civil charges that a Norfolk police officer used excessive force when he repeatedly used his Taser to shock a mentally disabled woman because she would not turn down the radio she played while exercising with a hula hoop near Wards Corner have been settled for $65,000.
The Virginian-Pilot reported on Saturday that Pamela Brown’s legal team accepted the settlement offer from the Norfolk city government after initially seeking $5 million for civil rights violations and brutality. Brown suffered brain injuries after being struck by a truck while in high school during the late 1970s. Most days, she walks from her home to a median near the intersection of Granby Street and Little Creek Boulevard, cranks up her radio and breaks into a hula hoop routine.
On Oct. 11, 2008, police received a noise complaint about Brown’s radio. When Brown refused to comply with a request to turn down the volume, the responding police office Tasered her for several minutes, handcuffed her and took her to jail. All charges against Brown were later dropped.
Brown’s civil lawsuit and its settlement highlight several important issues related to law enforcement and the protect of people with brain injuries. Model guidelines for the use of Tasers–which come in other brands and are generally referred to as “conducted energy weapons–state that police officers should only use the disabling weapons when they feel immediately threatened and are reasonably sure that the suspect they are confronting is near to themselves in age, strength and physical capability. It would appear difficult that Brown met any of these criteria.
Further, while Tasers have been determined to be safe when used appropriately, many instances of the overuse and even fatal use of Taser are well documented. In June 2008, Taser manufacturer Taser International Inc. was ordered to pay $6.2 million to a California family whose member died after being repeatedly shocked with Tasers.
Beyond questions of the proper use of force, the case involving Norfolk’s Hula Hoop Lady casts a light on how police should act when encountering individuals with brain injuries or other mental disabilities. There is no simple prescription for this, but a 200 report titled Keeping the Peace: Police Discretion and Mentally Ill Persons does conclude with a recommendation that “police officers must receive adequate training in recognizing and handling mentally ill citizens so that individuals who are more disordered than disorderly are referred to the appropriate system.”
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