WALTON, Ky. - Michael Yeary was blinded by anger until a Boone County deputy shined a light on him. It was a little red beam from Deputy Quintin McHale’s Taser.
“Yes, it made a difference,” Yeary said. “It made me realize I was being stupid and I should have went at it a whole different way.”
Yeary’s encounter with police is one of 50 described since January 1, 2017 in “show of force” reports at the Boone County Sheriff’s Office. The reports track incidents in which deputies drew their weapon but didn’t actually use it. The records are illuminating, said Boone County Major Tom Scheben, because they show how the mere threat of force can help bring subjects into compliance.
“It shows that there’s reasoning on the subject’s part,” Scheben said. “It shows restraint on our part.”
It also shows Boone County is serious about reforms implemented after a $3.5 million settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit in 2016. Attorney Al Gerhardstein, who sued Boone County for the 2014 shooting death of 19-year-old Samantha Ramsey, said the department delivered stronger reforms than he expected after the settlement agreement.
“They accepted the spirit of it and they filled it in with additional measures that make it work,” Gerhardstein said. “I'm hopeful that they'll be a model department for the rest of the law enforcement in the region.”
WCPO spent the last six months researching police use of force incidents in the Tri-State by obtaining written reports or police-camera video from 32 local police departments. That led to the creation of a database that enabled the I-Team to analyze about 2,500 incidents since 2015.
The analysis shows the use of force is rare, occurring in less than one percent of all police runs in 2017. But it is dangerous, resulting in nearly 1,300 injuries and at least 20 deaths since 2014.
Boone County is the only local department that requires deputies to file a separate form for show of force incidents. Those reports are subject to the same scrutiny as those involving the use of force.
“As the elected sheriff, I want to know any time one of my deputies is pointing a Taser or their weapon, and I want to know why,” said Sheriff Michael Helmig.
Scheben said the department reviews whether each incident was “justified in our collective minds. Not my mind. Not his. We all review it.”
Boone County reduced its annual use of force incidents from 38 in 2014 to 14 last year, a 63 percent decline. Show of force incidents declined 26 percent in the same period to 25 incidents. Gerhardstein thinks the department's increased oversight is a big factor in its improvement. Another is Helmig's decision to equip all deputies with body cameras.
"That was huge," Gerhardstein said. "The only way to really make sure you're using the least amount of force possible is to thoroughly study those incidents when force is used. So there should be an incident report. There should be video."
Cincinnati, the region’s largest police agency, does not track show of force incidents separately. But it has other kinds of oversight that Boone County lacks, including a citizen review panel that provides oversight of supervisory decisions on use of force. Cincinnati is also one of 20 local departments in which the display of weapons is sometimes reported in use of force records.
WCPO’s analysis shows there were 333 incidents at 21 local departments since 2015 in which officers displayed or threatened to use weapons but didn’t actually fire them. Some of these incidents also involved the actual use of force, including of arm and wrist holds, takedowns and spraying subjects with chemical weapons. Officers were hurt in 14 of these 333 incidents while 41 of them resulted in the injury of subjects like Michael Yeary.
The 63-year-old Walton resident was seeking revenge when deputies detained him a church parking lot on July 10, 2017. Police reports say Yeary was angry about being punched in the eye by a construction worker earlier that day. He left the scene but threatened to return, prompting the construction crew to call 911. Deputies McHale and Angeline Bouchard were waiting when Yeary returned with his son.
“Deputy McHale gave Yeary several verbal warnings to stop advancing and cussing but (he) failed to do so,” the Boone County report states. “Deputy McHale then pulled out his department issued Taser X26 and placed it in the middle of Michael’s back. At this point he started to comply.”
Department supervisors praised the deputies for “keeping the situation from escalating.” Scheben agreed with that assessment after viewing body cam footage of the incident with the I-Team.
“Our deputies are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do,” Scheben said, adding that Yeary and his son were “confrontational and threatening.”
More than a year after the incident, Yeary now admits he went too far. He pleaded guilty to both charges and apologized to deputies.
“I should have talked to them instead of got out all crazy acting,” he said. “When you’re mad and upset, you do stuff you regret.”
But Yeary also faulted deputies for ignoring his physical disabilities, which made it hard for him to put his hands behind his back.
“If they would have just given me a chance I would have done anything they asked,” he said. “But no, they wanted to show me that they’re the cops, they’re in charge. They’re the big bad police.”
Gerhardstein, a celebrated civil-rights lawyer who has litigated several police misconduct cases, said departments should promote “the least amount of force used, consistent with public safety.” That means trying verbal commands, de-escalation techniques and other non-violent methods before using or showing force.
“It’s one of the scariest things in the world to have a weapon pointed at you,” he said. “Normally you don't need to start with showing force. You need to start with finding out what happened and separating people, keeping your distance, taking your time.”
Helmig often preaches the value of “slowing down.” In fact, he tells deputies to tap their colleagues on the shoulder when a situation escalates toward physical confrontation.
“If I tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘The Sheriff needs to see you,’ that’s a code word for, ‘You need to step back and I’m taking over the scene because it’s not going well for you,'" Helmig said. "That’s the way we train, to take care of each other.”