To serve, protect and tase

Another death in the Sangamon County jail

Sheriff Jack Campbell has a history of defending Taser use that's led to deaths and lawsuits.
Sheriff Jack Campbell has a history of defending Taser use that's led to deaths and lawsuits.

One question burns after the latest death at the local jail: Why have so many people died under the noses of people employed by the Sangamon County sheriff's office?

Say their names.

Bobby Ray. Amon Paul Carlock. Maurice Burris. Pat Burns. Alonso Travis. Tiffany Rusher. And now, Jaimeson Daniel Cody, who died last week after being tased in the jail.

Since 2007, there have been at least seven tragedies, three involving Tasers. That might not seem like many, given 14 years, but Sangamon County is not a big place.

Always, there is good, albeit tragic, reason, or it was someone else's fault, our sheriffs have said. The first wave, when three inmates died in less than three months in the fall of 2007, was blamed on doctors, and there is truth in that. The cost-cutting county had employed a cut-rate outfit to provide medical care, and we got what we paid for. Also, it was guards. One who weighed an estimated 275 pounds sat atop Carlock after he refused to put on a shirt. Another tased him.

"I don't believe our employees have done anything wrong," Jack Campbell, then undersheriff, said about the Carlock case in 2013 while on the campaign trail. Campbell wasn't alone. "When we feel we have no liability, it's better to fight the case to the bitter end," county administrator Brian McFadden said a year earlier. In 2014, the county paid $2.6 million to Carlock's widow and a like amount to lawyers.

Pat Burns died in 2010, after being tased more than 20 times by myopic deputies who kept pulling triggers after tens of thousands of volts hadn't worked. High on cocaine, Burns had broken into a home and threatened a woman – abacus math worked in favor of the county, which settled for $40,000.

"We don't feel you can fire too much," Campbell told the State Journal-Register two weeks after Burns died, when the sheriff's office publicly tased a county board member to show that stun guns are harmless. "You use the Taser until the person complies with our order."

In 2017, the county paid $9,000 to settle a lawsuit from Richard Haley, an epileptic inmate who said that he'd been tased in 2011 while suffering a seizure and so could not comply. Jailers explained that tasing epileptics was accepted practice – inmates might be faking. In 2015, the county paid $150,000 to Tamara Skube, a bystander tased during a 2011 DUI stop by Deputy Travis Koester, who'd lied on the witness stand a year earlier, forcing dismissal of a drug case.

"I believe that she resisted arrest and that the use of force was justified," Campbell, then chief deputy of the sheriff's department, said. "We intend to have our day in court." U.S. District Court Judge Sue Myerscough subsequently ruled that the video spoke for itself: Skube had been a victim of police brutality and there was no issue for a jury to decide save damages, prompting the county to settle rather than risk a trial.

Campbell has been remarkably cavalier about Tasers, once telling reporters that he'd been tased more than a dozen times by colleagues as part of a running bet: If deputies caught him not wearing his dress uniform, they could tase him. It was a matter of camaraderie, he explained in 2013, before he became sheriff.

Campbell was mum after Cody was pronounced dead following a struggle with jailers who used Tasers. "If you're going to mention the words 'death' and 'inmate,' those questions are all going to Illinois State Police," Campbell said last week in refusing to say anything about the latest jail death, which state police are investigating.

Critics ask why jail guards need Tasers, which aren't used by the Illinois Department of Corrections or the federal Bureau of Prisons. Four years ago, Reuters reported that 104 people confined to prisons or jails had died after being tased since 2000, with nearly 70 percent of the cases resulting in lawsuits and 98 percent of those lawsuits resulting in payments to plaintiffs.

The coroner says he doesn't expect to determine Cody's cause of death for weeks – he's waiting for toxicology tests. It's too soon to say whether jailers did anything wrong. But it is fair to ask whether Campbell is keeping up with the times.

Video of Cody's fatal encounter with jail staff should have been released when Campbell determined that no one would be put on leave. Outside the jail, the sheriff issues press releases when his drug squad snags small fish, assuring everyone that the drug war remains in full effect. Our sheriff itches for an armored vehicle built for Afghanistan. We've never needed one before, notwithstanding a 2014 incident in a Riverton mobile home court that involved someone waving a rifle. Back then, the department deployed a quasi-tank that's since been relinquished, but I'm guessing there were other ways to get a fool out of a trailer.

Our sheriff sometimes seems stuck in the 1990s, when "Cops" was the rage: Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? Backing badges before facts are clear isn't cool anymore, and perhaps Campbell, who's exercised his right to remain silent in Cody's death, knows that. Let's hope such thinking evolves.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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