Taser death raises questions about mental health and police training | Wake County | Indy Week
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Taser death raises questions about mental health and police training 

Tommy Sadler with his partner, Heather Jones, in Beaufort, N.C.

Tommy Sadler with his partner, Heather Jones, in Beaufort, N.C.

On April 10, Heather Jones received a voicemail at 2 a.m.: "I'm just calling to tell you I love you. You don't need to call me back. I'm just thankful that I got you. I just hope you come back to me safe."

By the time she listened to that message from her partner, Tommy Sadler, he was dead.

Jones was in Florida. Sadler, who was caring for Jones' 14-year-old son, was on the verge of having a mental health episode near Five Points in Raleigh.

The events that unfolded that Wednesday morning highlight a lack of mental health training for police officers, as well as a need for safer Taser policies, according to some mental health and legal advocates.

Sadler, who was 45, played college football, won a scholarship and graduated from George Mason University, according to family members. He served in the Marines and was honorably discharged, they say.

His symptoms of bipolar disorder did not emerge until he was well into adulthood. Sadler wasn't taking all of his prescribed medications because they were so expensive, Jones says. And as a result of his mental illness, Sadler often clashed with police.

Sadler, as many media outlets reported, was convicted of multiple felonies. He was charged with possessing a weapon of mass destruction in 2008 and served time, but relatives say the "WMD" was a broken sawed-off shotgun.

At 3:44 a.m., a neighbor called 911 to report that Sadler was naked in a nearby church parking lot, screaming profanities. Another 911 call came 17 minutes later, reporting that Sadler had attacked Jones' teenage son, who escaped to a neighbors' house.

When Raleigh police arrived—in the report it's unclear at what time—Sadler initially complied with requests to sit down. However, his demeanor suddenly changed. He rushed Officer M.A. Ford, who was on the scene with Officer S.M. Archambault, the report said.

Ford pulled his Taser and shot Sadler, whom officers estimated to be more than 6 feet tall and 250 to 300 pounds. The jolt knocked him to the ground. Archambault tried to handcuff Sadler but was continuously "bucked off," the report states.

Each time Archambault was bucked off, Ford administered another dose of electricity. "This sequence continued several times," the report reads.

Raleigh Police Department spokesperson Jim Sughrue declined to say how many times Sadler was shocked, citing the ongoing investigation.

Once handcuffed, "Sadler suddenly stopped thrashing and grew quiet," the report continues. Sadler lay in the intersection of Mial and Wiggs streets. After an ambulance arrived, he was pronounced dead at the scene

The State Bureau of Investigation, as with any "in-custody death," is investigating; Ford has been placed on administrative duty.

It's symbolic that "he was at the church, naked," Jones says. "I think he had issues with God about the position he was in, a lot of anger, a lot of rage that he needed to let out."

An investigator telephoned Jones to ask her about Sadler's previous run-ins with the law and his mental health history. But Jones says the investigator didn't inform her of Sadler's death.

That was left to Jones' son. "I'm so sorry I have to tell you this mom, but he's dead," the son told her.

Jones says Sadler had often cared for her son without incident. On the night Sadler died, he did jerk her son out of bed, says Jones, but didn't hit him.

"He had never been like that around me before," says Jones, who has known Sadler since 2010. "He was genuine and loyal. He was smart. He had this really gravitational personality ... His illness really bothered him. He felt like an outcast from society. 'How did I become like this?' he would ask me."

Police officers often have trouble dealing with mentally ill people, says Debra Dihoff, executive director of the North Carolina chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

"Police tend to have a control and command mind frame and that works well in many situations, but not with mental illness," Dihoff says. "Mental illness requires empathy and redirection, talking to find a connection and then making a plan to get help."

Jones and members of Sadler's family don't want to assign blame for his death until a final report is released. However, they say this highlights a failure to deal with mental illness.

Dihoff agrees, particularly in regard to police training. During North Carolina's 620-hour police training course, only eight are dedicated to mental health training.

"If you look at the time law enforcement spends working with people with developmental disabilities, substance abuse problems, all mental illness, the proportion doesn't line up," Dihoff says.

NAMI provides a voluntary, 40-hour training program for officers. Dihoff says that 22 percent of law enforcement officers have taken the course in North Carolina since its inception in 2006.

According to figures provided by RPD, around 19 percent of Raleigh's sworn officers have participated in the training. INDY Week asked an RPD spokesperson whether Ford and Archambault had undergone NAMI training, but the spokesperson said that such personnel information was not subject to public record laws.

Sadler's case adds to the Taser-related deaths in the U.S. Since 2001, more than 500 people have died in police custody after being electrocuted by a Taser, according to an Amnesty International report. The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina in 2008 surveyed state law enforcement agencies and suggested a need for safer Taser policies.

Most policies, like RPD's, don't limit the number of times a person can be shot with a Taser. But Ian Mance, the lead researcher on ACLU-NC's report, says multiple shocks can paralyze the person receiving them.

"Sometimes after the first shock the muscles get so constricted, you can't follow the officer's orders," he says.

Indeed, police continued to shoot Sadler with a Taser because he was actively resisting, "despite repeated verbal commands to place his hands behind his back," according to the police report.

"It can be physically impossible to do what the officer is telling you, but they will see that as noncompliance," says Mance, who no longer works with ACLU-NC. "This is where training is so important, because a lot of police officers don't seem to have recognized someone wasn't resisting."

RPD's guidelines for the use of Tasers are safer than those of many other North Carolina law enforcement agencies, Mance says. However, it does not prohibit officers from shooting someone in the chest, despite the fact Taser International, the manufacturer, has acknowledged doing so is associated with cardiac arrest.

A family in Charlotte was awarded $10 million after 17-year-old Darryl Turner was shocked in the chest with a Taser X26—the model RPD uses—and died.

Raleigh's guidelines suggest officers should not shoot a subject in the head, neck or face, but they don't mention the chest.

RPD's spokesperson declined to say where the Taser cartridge struck Sadler's body.

"I'm not going to say yet whether the police did anything wrong," Jones says. "But there needs to be more training for dealing with people with mental illness."

This article appeared in print with the headline "A cry for help."

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