Texas Police to Continue Use of TASERs Despite Recent Death


By Deanna Boyd, Fort Worth (Texas) Star Telegram

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Police officials say they will continue to use Tasers despite the death Tuesday of a 21-year-old man stunned with the electronic device after he refused to come out of a closet.

The Tarrant County medical examiner is awaiting toxicology and histology test results to determine what killed Robert Guerrero, who was pronounced dead at John Peter Smith Hospital at 3:16 p.m. Tuesday.

He was the first suspect to die after being shot with the Taser by Fort Worth police since the department began using the weapons in 2001.

Police had gone to the North View apartment complex in the 2400 block of Clinton Avenue about 2:05 p.m. after a call from property manager Rosemary Granado.

She said Guerrero was illegally running electricity to an apartment where a young woman and child were staying because it was cold.

"That meter had been tampered with three times before, and a fire could have spread through the building," Granado said.

Lt. Abdul Pridgen, a police spokesman, said two members of the north Crime Response Team followed the electrical lines to an apartment where the occupants eventually told the police that the person they were looking for was hiding in a closet.

"The officers went over to the closet and asked the person to come out. They did not get a response," Pridgen said. "They opened the door and saw the suspect crouched down in the closet."

Pridgen said the officers again ordered the man out, but he did not reply, even after the officers threatened to use a Taser.

When Guerrero continued to ignore the police, officer P.R. Genualdo, a six-year veteran of the department, shot Guerrero in the chest with a Taser, Pridgen said.

Tasers fire probes that transmit electricity when they come into contact with a person, causing a loss of neuromuscular control.

With Guerrero still in the closet, Genualdo pulled the Taser's trigger at least once more, Pridgen said. Police then took Guerrero into custody and handcuffed him, Pridgen said.

After carrying Guerrero out of the apartment, the officers noticed that he had stopped breathing, Pridgen said. Paramedics were called, and the officers performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation until Guerrero was taken to JPS.

Neighbor Louis Perez said that he watched police from a hallway in the apartment and that Guerrero appeared "lifeless" after being shot with the Taser.

"They drug him down the stairs, and his head kept hitting the steps," Perez said.

Rachel Davila, who also lives at the complex, said that as police dragged Guerrero down the steps, his lips turned blue and his eyes rolled back before he quit breathing.

Genualdo, 35, has been placed on routine restricted duty while the department's major-case unit investigates, said major-case Sgt. Rene Kamper.

Pridgen said Taser use is allowed on unarmed suspects, like Guerrero, if the officer has probable cause for an arrest and believes that efforts to control a suspect by hand would result in someone getting hurt.

"They're a less-than-lethal use of force, and we believe they're essential in the arsenal of police officers in order to minimize injury," Pridgen said. "Studies have shown across the country that whenever Tasers are used as opposed to other means of less lethal force, less injuries are incurred."

The department has 259 Tasers, but the City Council last month agreed to ask the Crime Control and Prevention District board for $243,000 to buy 280 more.

Pridgen said that the department has been in contact with manufacturer Taser International but that "right now our policy regarding the Taser is not going to change."

He said that since first purchasing Tasers in July 2001, police have used them 103 times without incident.

More than 300 law enforcement agencies in Texas use Tasers. That includes Dallas police, where in August, Chief David Kunkle banned officers' use of a neck restraint in favor of Tasers.

In a written statement Wednesday, Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International, said the company believes in the lifesaving value of Tasers and is prepared to help in the investigation.

"Until all the facts surrounding this tragic incident are known, it is inappropriate to jump to conclusions about a cause of death," Tuttle said. "What we do know is that Taser technology save lives every day, and that the circumstances surrounding this incident appear to be consistent with other in-custody death incidents where a Taser device was not used."

Tuttle cited a U.S. Department of Defense study released last month that found that temporary incapacitation by Tasers did not appear to pose a significant risk.

Still, the relatively new devices have generated controversy.

A New York Times report this summer indicated that since 2001, at least 50 people have died after being shocked by stun guns.

Locally, Samuel Wakefield of Blum died Sept. 12 after being zapped with a Taser by police during a traffic stop in Rio Vista. Witnesses told investigators that Wakefield had ingested an eight-ball, or an eighth of an ounce, of cocaine about an hour earlier.

The Johnson County Medical Examiner's Office later ruled Wakefield's death accidental, caused by an oral overdose of cocaine.

Toxicology tests will determine whether Guerrero may have had narcotics in his system that contributed or led to his death, police said.

Lt. Paul Jwanowski, training coordinator at the police academy, said at a news conference Wednesday that he had heard reports from investigating detectives that Guerrero may have smoked crack cocaine just before the officers' arrival.

Guerrero's grandmother, Juanita Rico, said she is upset with the way her grandson was treated.

"I don't think what they did is right," Rico said. "He was doing a good thing with helping that family out, and just because we are Mexicans doesn't mean the police can do anything they want to."

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