Board votes Taser case should be reopened

The controversial case of a Eugene police officer tasering a Chinese student entered a new phase of dispute last week when a police oversight committee voted that the use of force against the student violated Eugene Police Department’s Taser policy and the investigation of the case should be reopened.

Since its formation three years ago, the Civilian Review Board has reviewed 21 cases involving questionable police force. This is the first instance in which the board recommended EPD reopen a case.

The September incident involved officer Judd Warden mistaking a non-English speaking college student for a trespasser in his own apartment and, according to a police report, using a Taser to subdue the student because he perceived the student’s non-compliance to police orders as a threat.

Following EPD’s internal investigation of the incident, Police Chief Pete Kerns exonerated the officer, saying the use of force was “at the edge of what’s allowed by policy. But it is within policy.”

The Civilian Review Board rebutted that decision on Tuesday by voting unanimously that the officer was faulty in Tasering the student.

The seven-member board voted four in favor, three opposed to recommend Kerns reopen the investigation.

But board chairperson Kate Wilkinson, who could not be reached for comment, expressed doubts to The Register-Guard that the recommendation would influence the outcome of the case.

“I’m not sure it’s going to have any different effect in the end,” Wilkinson said. “We don’t have any say in discipline decisions and, frankly, we are not qualified to make them.”

Merrick Bobb, director of the national Police Assessment Resource Center, a group that was instrumental in the design of Eugene’s police oversight model, said the debate over how much authority a citizen oversight board should wield is an important one for cities across the country.

“There is a relationship between the power of the citizen review boards, as far as their influence with the city police and the satisfaction of the community the police serve,” Bobb said. “If these groups are empowered, riffs between the police and the community can be healed.”

EPD spokesperson Melinda Kletzok said Kerns is reviewing tapes from the board’s meeting, and “he is genuinely interested in the feedback from the meeting and in communicating openly with the department and the community about this.”

Following the vote, Kletzok said, city lawyers discovered legal issues over whether the board has the authority to direct Kerns to reopen the case. The City Attorney will review those issues and is expected to make a decision by the end of the month.

Bobb said the most fundamental issue in any case such as this is maintaining positive public perception of the law enforcement agencies.

“You have to go back to why we have these issues in the first place: Because trust has broken down,” he said. “The very purpose of these things is to have an independent body to gauge fairness and provide a check on the police department, the ultimate goal being to restore trust between the police and the community, restore integrity and give the community some comfort.”

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