Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials have launched a misconduct investigation of two supervisors who authorized the use of a stun gun on a 21-year-old arrestee because he was unruly and refused to submit to electronic fingerprinting, The Times has learned.
As a result of being shocked with a Taser, Blake Dupree fell off the top of a jail bunk bed and broke his back. The injury has left him temporarily paralyzed and he could be crippled for life, his attorney said.
According to sheriff’s officials, Dupree, who showed signs of being mentally ill or under the influence of drugs, had been generally “uncooperative” for hours before a lieutenant at the Lakewood sheriff’s station approved the use of the Taser, which delivers a 50,000-volt shock.
The investigation into the Feb. 27 incident -- much of it captured on videotape -- will determine whether use of the Taser violated department policy.
Department rules prohibit using the device on “persons in danger of falling or becoming entangled in machinery or heavy equipment which could result in death or serious bodily injury.” Despite the prohibition, the policy does allow for supervisors to decide whether use of a Taser is warranted on a case-by-case basis.
Lt. James Tatreau Jr., who authorized the use of the device on Dupree, has been reassigned to administrative duties pending the outcome of the investigation, sources said. A unnamed sergeant who was involved in the decision has also been reassigned.
Tatreau, a former driver and bodyguard for L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, received some unwanted attention last year after The Times disclosed that he had organized a game called “Operation Any Booking” in which deputies competed to see how many people they could arrest.
The competition was decried by civil libertarians, disavowed by Baca and made fun of by “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno.
Tatreau did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Baca said his preliminary assessment of the recent incident was that “common sense” should have dictated that using the Taser on Dupree was inappropriate while he was on the bunk and likely to fall as a result of being shocked.
Baca added that he was concerned, because of Dupree’s demeanor, that deputies and supervisors may not have sufficiently explored alternatives to the stun gun.
“If someone is off balance mentally . . . call the mental health evaluation team in,” Baca said in an interview Wednesday, shortly before departing on a trip to Saudi Arabia. “Those with the most experience should deal with them.”
Dupree, a Bellflower resident, was arrested Feb. 26 on suspicion of carjacking his mother’s vehicle.
According to his attorney, Stan Sanders, Dupree and his mother were at a Jack in the Box restaurant when Dupree took his mother’s car without her consent. Concerned that her son was acting erratically and might hurt himself, she called police, Sanders said. Sheriff’s deputies found Dupree at Bellflower High School, where he was looking for his sister, the attorney said.
Dupree was not charged with carjacking, according to a district attorney’s representative. Rather, he was charged with violating his probation on an earlier conviction for gun possession.
After his arrest, Dupree was taken to the Lakewood station; there, deputies said, he failed to cooperate with routine instructions and behaved strangely. As a result, he was placed in a cell by himself where he began throwing mattresses around the room, authorities said. This behavior continued until the morning after his arrest.
When Dupree refused to submit to electronic fingerprinting -- a process in which a suspect’s digits are scanned into a computer database -- Tatreau authorized the use of the Taser if Dupree continued to resist, according to two Sheriff’s Department sources familiar with the incident.
At the time, Dupree was on the top bed of a double bunk about 4 feet off the ground and refused to come down. He was given a verbal warning by Tatreau, who had conferred with the sergeant on the scene, and a deputy was ordered to fire the equivalent of a warning shot by activating the Taser so Dupree could hear its buzz, according to Sheriff’s Department reports obtained by The Times.
After the warnings, Dupree stood on the bunk and began to move toward the edge, in the direction of the deputies, said sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore. It was then that the unidentified deputy shot Dupree with the Taser, causing him to fall to the floor.
Baca said he was convinced that no one intended to “punish” Dupree by shocking him but that the potential consequences of doing so should have been clear.
“We have to do better,” he said.
Sanders, who has filed a legal claim against the Sheriff’s Department in connection with the incident, said Dupree suffered extensive damage to his spinal cord and cannot move his legs. He said doctors have told him that the condition is likely to be permanent.
“This is a young man . . . with many years to live,” Sanders said. “He’s now paralyzed.”