Omaha police shocked a nursing home resident with a Taser last month after the 79-year-old man with dementia threatened officers with a fistful of safety pins.
Relatives of Rodell Cole don't understand why the incident happened. They plan to file a complaint with the Omaha Police Department.
The 106-pound Cole was left with a bruise on one knee, where he says he was kicked by an officer.
Yolanda Cole, Rodell's niece, said staff members and police should have left her uncle alone. He would have calmed down, she said.
“We're real upset about the whole thing,” said Yolanda Cole, who has power of attorney for her uncle. “It was unnecessary. They hurt him real bad.”
Experts in law enforcement and care of the elderly disagree on whether police and the nursing home staff acted properly during the incident.
Interim Omaha Police Chief David Baker said that after reading officers' reports, he sees nothing alarming about their actions.
“Leaving him alone wasn't an option,” Baker said. “If he's a danger to himself or others, we would bear the responsibility if something happened after we left.”
Department policy dictates that an internal committee will review the conduct of the officers, but such reviews' results are not made public.
Taser is a brand name for a device that sends an electric shock by way of barbs that are shot into a person. It causes muscles to spasm and usually incapacitates the subject. It is generally painful.
The devices are usually safer than firearms for officers and civilians. But they can be dangerous for people who are frail or on drugs or who could be injured from a fall.
An Omaha man died in 2007 after police used a stun gun on him and he fell out of a window. His mother filed a lawsuit against police, but a federal judge threw it out.
Rodell Cole, who uses a wheelchair, acknowledged that he was belligerent the night of the Taser incident. He said he was upset because a staff member woke him up.
“I wish they would've just left me alone,” he said.
Cole plans to stay at the nursing home where he has lived for 12 years. Staffers take him fishing, and once he won a flowered hat in a bingo game.
“It's fun,” he said.
Omaha Taser policy
The Omaha Police Department gives officers latitude in determining when to shock someone with a Taser.
According to the department Taser policy: “An electronic control device may be used to control a potentially dangerous or violent subject when the subject, through words or actions, communicates that he or she may soon resist, oppose or attempt to flee from an officer making a lawful arrest or detention.”
“An ECD may also be used if a person poses a risk to self, such as a self-inflicted injury or a suicide attempt.”
It does warn officers to be aware of conditions that can make an electric shock more dangerous to the target — such as being elderly — but it doesn't ban Taser use on those people. “Officers must balance elevated injury risk with the need for apprehension,” the policy states.
“It seems from much of that language that they're pretty conservative in their use of (the) devices,” said Gene Paoline, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida who has studied police use of force. In particular, he noted the language about “a potentially dangerous or violent subject.”
He said some other departments allow officers to Taser anyone who appears to be resisting arrest or even walking away from officers. -- Roseann Moring
Here's how the Taser incident happened, according to interviews with Baker and Cole, as well as a nurse's written account provided by the family:
Confused and agitated, Cole grabbed a staffer trying to clean his room about 11 p.m. April 20.
A nurse persuaded Cole to let go, and the staff left him in his room to calm down. He then locked the door and barricaded himself in the room.
The staff debated whom to call and eventually settled on police.
Three officers arrived about 11:30 p.m. They couldn't persuade Cole to open the door, so they pushed it open.
Cole tried to punch the officers as he held open safety pins pointed outward. He also cursed and yelled at them to get out of his room. He threw things, including a disposable razor, at the officers.
Officers warned Cole that he might be shocked with a Taser. One officer said, “We don't want to hurt you.”
Cole continued to scream and threaten officers.
At 12:05 a.m., a nurse wrote: “This nurse witnessed officer #1 bring his right leg back and kick the resident with the top of his foot (not his toes) in the left leg/knee area.”
Baker said the officers did not kick Cole.
He said an officer kicked a trash can out of Cole's hands. Cole, however, said the can was on the floor.
The nurse wrote that the officer also yelled obscenities at Cole.
Baker said that after an officer pulled out a Taser, Cole grabbed it.
The officer asked a nurse whether Cole had a pacemaker. The nurse looked at his chart, as Cole continued threatening the officers.
“It's too late,” the officer said, according to the nurse's report, and he shocked Cole with a Taser.
Cole fell onto the bed but continued to flail his arms, so the officer shocked him again in the chest, he said.
Officers handcuffed Cole and brought him to a police cruiser in a wheelchair as a precaution, Baker said.
“Officers are trained to consider whether a Taser is appropriate for frail or infirm suspects, but in this case, Mr. Cole wasn't frail enough,” Baker said. “He could have inflicted injury on himself or others.”
Police placed Cole in emergency protective custody at Immanuel Medical Center. He returned to the nursing home early the next morning.
Cole said on May 10 that his knee still hurt from being kicked, and he was taking pain medication for the bruise.
The police report does not say who used the Taser, although it names the officers present: Russell Bennett, Steven Patrick and Josh Martinec.
Baker said safety pins can pose risks, especially if they aren't sterile.
“It's unfortunate that it had to happen in that way,” Baker said, “but our primary goal is to render a situation safe for everyone as quickly and safely as possible.”
This was an uncommon situation, said Dr. Tom Magnuson, a geriatric psychiatrist.
Magnuson, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said he couldn't think of another time when nursing home staff called police.
“Hopefully you would be able to get the situation under control before it gets to that point,” he said.
Magnuson, who was not involved in the Cole incident, said Cole's belligerent behavior was not out of the ordinary for people with dementia.
They often believe that there's a threat even when there isn't, but it's usually possible to calm them down, he said.
“A lot of times the response of the staff has everything to do with whether this escalates,” he said.
Deborah Clark, director of operations at Maple Crest Care Center, declined to talk about the specifics of the incident, citing medical privacy. She did say that police are rarely called to the facility and that she didn't know of any other stun gun incidents there.
Timothy Dimoff, a former police detective in Akron, Ohio, who has trained officers on use of force, said perhaps the officers could have tried harder to de-escalate the situation.
Officers should have first tried to calm Cole, perhaps by leaving the room, said Dimoff, who owns a security consulting firm. “It appears that the officers escalated the use of force prematurely.”
If they couldn't calm the situation, the three officers should have tried to overpower Cole, Dimoff said. He said a Taser might be called for if Cole were younger or more physically powerful.
“Many times when you're working with people with emotional issues like that, especially older people, there are other things you could do,” other than use a Taser, he said.
Another former police officer and training instructor disagreed.
Mike Schlosser, director and Taser instructor at the University of Illinois Police Training Institute, said the officers' actions were “absolutely” justified.
“If a person has a weapon, it could end up being a deadly force situation even if the mental intent is that the person doesn't know what they're doing,” Schlosser said.
He said the advantage of the Taser is that it immobilizes the subject, which pepper spray and other kinds of force don't do.
“Our first goal is to be able to resolve the situation with words,” he said. “But words don't always work, so we have to act.”
World-Herald staff writers Sam Womack, Emerson Clarridge and Kevin Cole contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1084, firstname.lastname@example.org