Officials say death of George V. King is being investigated
By Justin Fenton
A city police officer used his Taser five times to subdue a heavily medicated 19-year-old man who was fighting staff at Good Samaritan Hospital and later died, according to his family's attorney and an account from a law enforcement source.
State social services officials identified the teen Monday as George V. King, a Charles County foster youth living in a Baltimore residential facility. King was in a coma for a week after the altercation, then died May 14.
Police disclosed the incident a day later, saying they had opened a criminal and administrative investigation. Officials say they have not determined what role, if any, the officers' actions played in King's death.
The teen's mother appeared Monday with her attorney, Granville Templeton III, at a rally outside Good Samaritan. Georgette King said her son had been hospitalized overnight for a reaction to medication after a dental procedure. The fight took place the day after hospital staff tried to administer a medical procedure, she said.
Georgette King faulted hospital officials and said police "brutalized" her son.
"He's my only child that God has given me," she said. "Police are supposed to protect and serve, and this is not protect and serve."
Lt. Eric Kowalczyk, a police spokesman, said that while police "clearly had an interaction" with King, investigators were looking at "everything that transpired and trying to put together all of the pieces to see what happened here." He said the autopsy was pending, and the officer who used the Taser remains on duty.
The death comes as city police are moving — at a cost of $1.5 million — to equip the entire force with the electronic stun devices, which proponents credit with saving lives because officers can avoid using lethal firearms.
Critics have pointed to deaths associated with the electronic shock from the devices, and some say officers are too quick to reach for them.
City Councilman Robert Curran attended a meeting Monday between hospital executives, police and members of the faith-based community to discuss the hospital's protocols. He said police couldn't discuss specifics due to the ongoing case.
But standing with King's mother, the Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon Sr., a Baltimore activist who organized the Monday rally, said police should release more information about what happened.
"There are a lot of assumptions taking place because the Baltimore Police Department has created an environment where there are a lot of unanswered questions," Witherspoon said.
A hospital spokeswoman said she could not comment, citing health privacy laws.
According to an account provided by a law enforcement source, the officers, Thomas Hodas and James Wynne, saw eight to 10 staff members trying to hold down King, who is listed in police records as 5-foot-9 and about 190 pounds.
He broke free, and Hodas instructed him to calm down or risk the Taser when King allegedly said, "Tase me then," according to the source's account. Hodas used the device, but King continued to fight.
Officers and staff were able to get him onto a gurney but could not secure restraints, according to the account.
Hodas then used the device four times in "drive-stun" mode — in which the device is thrust into a person's body instead of prongs being fired from a distance. It still had no effect, according to the source.
At that point, the teen was given a sedative, eventually passed out and was restrained. Before the officers arrived, King had been given a drug called Keppra to combat other drugs in his system and police believed it caused him to become violent, according to the source's account.
King had not been arrested and was not in police custody during or after the struggle with officers.
The Baltimore Police Department's Taser guidelines do not offer specific instruction on use of the device beyond saying that "any deployment must be reasonable and necessary" and that the agency forbids "unwarranted and excessive use."
Taser International, in its own guidelines, generally does not recommend using the device more than once on a subject, and says it should be "avoided unless the officer reasonably believes that the need to control the individual outweighs the potentially increased risk posed by multiple applications."
It also says that people suffering from "profound agitation" and drug intoxication are more susceptible to death or serious injury.
King had been arrested three times in the past year, court records show. In December, police said, he got into a fight over someone borrowing his clothes without permission at a group home where he was staying.
In court documents, the arresting officer wrote that King was "very cooperative with police" and was arrested without incident. Those charges were later dropped.
Templeton said King was raised in Charles County but had gone into foster care due to medical issues his mother was experiencing. He had enrolled in Baltimore City Community College and was interested in culinary school and animation.
Brian M. Schleter, a spokesman for the Department of Human Resources, said the agency was "deeply saddened and concerned" by King's death.
"We have begun our review of the case but will await the investigation of police activities announced by the Baltimore Police Department prior to completing the evaluation," Schleter said.
In 2011, Baltimore Police were featured on the CBS show "60 Minutes" for a segment on Tasers, in which then-Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said he was "absolutely not a fan" of the devices," though he said he believed they were a safer alternative "in a lot of situations."
At that time, the department had 500 devices deployed among nearly 3,000 officers.
Earlier that year, the National Institute for Justice released a study claiming some officers were reaching for the weapon too quickly.
According to a strategic plan for the agency created last year under Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts' administration, the number of Tasers in circulation had dropped to 412, and the report said those devices lacked a safety feature and would have to be replaced. The report said the agency planned to replace those and equip "all officers" with Tasers.
While police chief in Long Beach, Calif., Batts authored a study about Tasers, writing that the city had seen a "marked decrease in use-of-force-related officer injuries as well as a drop in liability claims filed against the department."
At that time, Long Beach Police had never seen a death associated with the use of a Taser and only three cases resulting in serious injuries, which he wrote were caused by something other than the Taser.
In the case of a Baltimore County family who sued after their son was killed in 2007 following an officer's use of a Taser on him 10 times, the court found that the first deployments did not amount to unreasonable force because the man continued to act erratically and was holding a baseball bat that he did not drop until after the second shock.
Over the course of the next several shocks, however, he no longer had a weapon and was being restrained by officers sitting on his back.
"It is an excessive and unreasonable use of force for a police officer repeatedly to administer electrical shocks with a Taser on an individual who no longer is armed, has been brought to the ground, has been restrained physically by several other officers, and no longer is actively resisting arrest," the court found.