Nine years and one month after a mentally ill man out-of-control on a Southampton street died after being shot with a Taser, pepper sprayed and fought with by numerous police officers before they subdued and handcuffed him, a judge has ruled that neither Brian Platt, one of the police officers, nor Taser International, the maker of the Tasers used in the incident, bears responsibility in the death of the man. The judge also dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Village of Southampton, but claims against other individuals, the Village of Southampton Police Department and Suffolk County will continue.
I don’t ever recall a case of this nature in a single courtroom taking this long in New York. But this one has. Federal magistrate judge William D. Wall, of the Eastern District of New York, wrote in his summary, “There is no expert evidence that anything that Platt did or did not do caused Mr. Glowczenski’s death.” He also wrote “It would not have been clear to a reasonable officer on February 4, 2004, that using a Taser on an emotionally troubled individual—all of the disputed issues of fact not withstanding—when ordered to do so by a superior officer was unlawful. Nor would a reasonable officer have believed that multiple applications of the Taser were unlawful.”
David Glowczenski was a large man, 35 years old, who lived with his parents on Layton Avenue in Southampton. He suffered from schizophrenia, which sometimes would cause him to become delusional and frightened, and sometimes aggressive and out of control. He had, in the past, taken medicine to control this. He’d also had prior episodes when the police were called. On this day, February 4, 2004, it was reported that he was in the house when he overheard his mother talking to his two brothers about taking him to the Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport because of how he was acting. He started acting even more upset and soon his mother called 911. Several further calls to 911 took place after that.
After one of these calls, Glowczenski took a bible and was going to go to church to pray, his sister said. He walked out the door and down Layton Avenue to North Main Street where, in front of the Our Lady of the Hamptons School, by the railroad station, several police cars arrived one at a time and four police officers got out, found him screaming, yelling and behaving wildly and attempted to calm him down. He failed to calm down. Officers then attempted to subdue him, during which time a female police officer fell to the ground. Eventually, the complaint stated, after being shocked with a Taser and pepper sprayed, he was subdued, on his stomach with his hands cuffed behind his back, zip ties on his ankles, lying on the ground.
At this point, paramedics were called, and when they arrived they found Glowczenski in cardiac arrest, not breathing. He was transported to Southampton Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 11:20 a.m. His bible was found at the scene.
As happens whenever there is a death during a police incident in this county, it’s investigated by the Suffolk County Police Department. They said the village police had used appropriate force to subdue a man who was thrashing out of control. The Suffolk Police report also said they did not believe Glowczenski was kicked or beaten.
On September 20, 2004, a press conference was held in Garden City at which time a lawyer for the Glowczenski family announced there would be a lawsuit against the Village of Southampton, its Police Department, Suffolk County, various police officers, EMTs, medical examiners and others. Also in the suit was Taser International of Scottsdale, Arizona.
At this press conference, reported by The New York Times the next day, attorney Fredrick Brewington showed photographs of Glowczenski’s bruised and cut face. Glowczenski’s sister Jean Griffin spoke, described what happened to her brother and called it murder.
“He had no weapon and had committed no crime,” she said.
Much was also made of the autopsy done on Glowczenski’s body by Suffolk County Deputy Medical Examiner James Wilson, M.D. His report stated that Glowczenski had died of “acute exhaustive mania due to schizophrenia.”
The family then ordered a second autopsy, performed by Dr. Lone Thanning, the Rockland County Medical Examiner, who said she saw “extensive evidence of excess force” and that she thought he had died of a combination of the blunt force injuries, pepper spray and repeated Taser shots (she found nine). She also said that Glowczenski had been handcuffed and had his ankles shackled, and that a large man kneeled on his back. Thanning also reported damage to Glowczenski’s testicles and face.
Much was made by the press after the announcement of death by “acute exhaustive mania,” or excited delirium, which some experts consider extremely rare.
Suffolk County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Charles Wetli later discussed “excited delirium,” saying that he has cited it as a cause of death “once or twice a year” in other police-encounter deaths he oversees. He intends to continue writing and lecturing about it, and said he first heard the phrase used by a psychiatrist. (Opinions by Witli and Thanning were expressly excluded by the court.)
A medical examiner in Michigan, Dr. Werner Spitz, who was not retained by either side, had this to say about many other deaths attributed to excited delirum.
“They die because they cannot breathe,” he said in an interview with Newsday, adding, “Why doesn’t [excited delirium] happen when somebody is not restrained? You know that that means? It means it was a coincidence. I do not believe in coincidences.”
You can draw your own conclusions from this tragedy. Here are mine.
The police have a tough, tough job to do. We cannot thank them enough for what they do. Sometimes they are confronted by difficult decisions in which they have to make quick judgments. The judge, I think correctly, ruled that in the absence of clear evidence about the amount of resistance or aggression Glowczenski showed, the police did not go beyond the bounds of what they were trained to do.
This case now continues, in order to determine if there is negligence, and if so, how much. Hopefully, this will not take another nine years.
Before there were Tasers, the police would throw grappling nets over people who were out of control. I know Tasers are high tech. And I know that as part of police training, officers are allowed to ask to be shot with a Taser to be shown what it feels like. Where are the grappling nets?