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UC police officer sued over Taser use death

Victim's parents claim civil rights violation

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CINCINNATI - Everette Howard, Jr., 18, died on August 6, 2011, after a University of Cincinnati police officer fired at Taser at him after he said the youth failed to obey a direct order.

On Thursday, the parents of the North College Hill teenager sued that officer, Richard Haas, claiming he violated their son's civil rights, the tasing caused his death and that the use of the Taser was unconstitutional.

Civil rights Attorney Al Gerhardstein filed the lawsuit at U.S. District Court in Cincinnati.  He was surrounded by Everette's father, Everette Howard, Sr., his mother, Travonna, and more than a dozen other family members.

"When this lawsuit is done, we'll have a verdict that honors Everette's legacy," he said.  "We will have a finding by a jury that a Taser used in this circumstance is wrong.  We'll have a reform movement underway that says don't do chest shots -- don't shoot people in the chest with Tasers unless you mean to kill them.  We'll have a reform movement that says don't use Tasers if you don't have a serious crime."

Howard was at UC for the Upward Bound program, which concluded on August 5, 2011.  He was due to return home the next day.  

Officer Haas has reported he responded to a fight on campus that night.  When he encountered Howard and ordered him to stop, Officer Haas said Howard approached him with balled fists.  Other witnesses have given contrary accounts of what took place.  The UC Police Department has said Officer Haas acted in accordance with police policy.

The lawsuit claims visitors to Howard's room took a hat and later chased one of his roommates across campus.  A resident assistant called 911 to report the incident and Howard went with him to meet a police lieutenant.  On the way, they encountered Officer Haas, who had his X-26 Taser drawn and aimed at them.  Officer Haas ordered the pair to put their hands up and get on the ground.  As both began to comply, the resident assistant explained he was the one who called police, but Officer Haas fired the Taser at Howard, hitting him in the chest near his heart.

Gerhardstein said the family demanded an investigation, but got something very different.

On June 6, 2012, Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco ruled the case of death "unknown" and "undetermined."

"The man was healthy.  He was young.  He wasn't on drugs or alcohol.  He was tased and then he was dead," Gerhardstein said.  "Undetermined?  Unbelievable!"

Dr. Sammarco has not responded to 9 News' repeated requests for an interview about her ruling.

Six days later, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said there would be no criminal prosecution against Officer Haas.

"The University of Cincinnati has still not disciplined Richard Haas," Gerhardstein added.  "The family has been waiting.  Nothing has happened.  We're done waiting on the government."

Travonna Howard said all she wants is justice for her son because she feels his death was senseless.

"I will do whatever I have to do with the very last breath in my body," she said.  "Until we get justice, we will not be quiet about it."

Justice to her means holding everyone who was involved accountable even if it means jail time or suspensions.

"He was a student.  He was two weeks away from going to college.  He was on his way to doing something with his life.  He wasn't a troublemaker," she said.  "He was at UC in a summer program earning college credits so he could have a step forward when he entered Cumberland University."

Everette Howard, Sr., said he'd like to see policies changed regarding the use of Tasers.

"I would like no one else to get tased," he said.  "No kids.  No more kids."

In the last two days, Gerhardstein says he has sent every Hamilton County law enforcement agency a public records request asking for their Taser policies and information on how they maintain the weapon.

A Taser sends electricity into the body to incapacitate a person, but tests on the weapon's electrical output are not required in the United States.  In addition, there are no standards in place to measure or test Tasers, unlike radar guns, breathalyzers and law enforcement tools.

After obtaining the information, Gerhardstein said he will try and encourage departments to change their policies where necessary and improve training.

"They should not use Tasers in cases where a suspect is accused of minor crimes, because it is a dangerous weapon and we don't want it used lightly," he said.

For years, studies have shown Tasers have reduced injuries to officers and suspects, but recent studies are producing evidence that Taser shots to the chest area can lead to cardiac arrest. The evidence prompted the weapon's manufacturer, Taser International, to warn law enforcement to avoid the chest area when the weapon is fired.

Howard's parents say the coroner told them Everette needed to have been hooked up to an EKG machine at the time the Taser was used on him in order to know for certain whether the electricity from the Taser killed him.

Amnesty International reports more than

500 deaths following the use of Taser since 2001, but in only around 60 of those deaths have medical examiners ruled Tasers contributed to or caused death.

"Medical examiners tended to reach their decisions on the basis of various circumstances, including the proximity of the shocks to the fatal collapse, the toxicology findings and whether the impact of the Taser shocks could have contributed to cardiac or respiratory failure," an Amnesty International study on Tasers reported.

University of Cincinnati Spokesperson Greg Hand said the University has an internal investigation underway, so it can't comment on the lawsuit.

However, Hand said in a statement, "The University of Cincinnati community was saddened by the tragic death of Everette Howard, a young man full of potential and promise.  The entire university community continues to mourn the heartbreaking loss of his life.  The University immediately extended our deep and sincere condolences to Everette's parents, family and loved ones and honored his memory at the 2012 University Memorial Ceremony.

Hand added that the use of Tasers by the UC Police Department was suspended a year ago.

A peaceful prayer vigil will be held on the Clifton Campus Monday at 8:00 p.m.  That's the one-year anniversary of Howard's death.  His cousin, Stephanie Brown, said it will take place outside Turner Hall, where Howard stayed during the Upward Bound program.

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