Police in Albany, New York, are investigating the death of a mentally ill man after he was shocked by police Taser devices early Thursday.
The man, Donald "Dontay" Ivy, 39, is described by family as a quiet, introverted paranoid schizophrenic who suffered from heart problems, according to Albany's Times Union newspaper.
Albany police have not made it clear why Ivy was confronted by officers in the first place, but say that he started fighting them during the encounter. The amount of times he was tasered has not been released.
"We're going to do a thorough investigation and we're going to get all the answers," said acting police chief Brian Cox, who has only held the position for a week, since the previous chief retired. "No matter what the situation is, we try to defuse the situation. But a lot of times the situation dictates itself. Once something becomes physical it's very difficult to defuse that until you get custody of that person under control."
Cox added that an autopsy had been performed, but declined to elaborate on its findings.
The family remains skeptical about the encounter. "I'm still trying to figure out how it escalated," cousin Celestal Hightower told the Times Union, adding that she is usually slow to criticize police actions. "It's just weird to me. The whole thing just doesn't make sense. I don't know what they did. I don't know how it came about. I just want it to make sense."
Ivy's mental condition was "very obvious to anyone that speaks to him," she said. The man’s older sister Aneisha Johnston added: "They just basically told me that he was stopped and then it progressed into something else and he died."
Police said that shortly after Ivy was tasered, they realized he seemed to stop breathing, and began CPR. He was pronounced dead at a hospital shortly after.
Tasers have long been lauded by law enforcement as a non-lethal means of force, but deaths resulting from taserings are not unheard of. In a Fusion report last year, we detailed the death of Miami Beach resident Israel Hernandez, who was tasered in the chest after tagging an abandoned building.
In a historic report, the medical examiner in that case listed the two causes of death: "sudden cardiac arrest," and "conducted energy device surcharge." It was the first time a medical examiner in Florida attributed the device as a cause of death, though there had been at least seven Taser-related deaths in Miami-Dade County since 1989.
At times, Taser International, the devices' manufacturer, has gone to the courts to protect the devices' reputation as a non-lethal means of force.
In 2008, the company successfully sued an Ohio medical examiner who listed the devices as the cause of death in three cases. The judge in that case ordered the medical examiner to remove any mention of Tasers in three cause of death reports.
“It is dangerously close to intimidation,” Jeff Jentzen, then-president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, said at the time of the Ohio ruling. “At this point, we adamantly reject the fact that people can be sued for medical opinions that they make.”
On a national level, it is nearly impossible to track Taser-related deaths, in part because the subject is so controversial.
“[Conducted Energy Device] deaths are highly controversial…most medical examiners/coroners (ME/C) do not attribute the cause of death to CEDs,” a Bureau of Justice official wrote in a statement to Fusion last August.
"Taser continues to stand by the independent peer reviewed medical studies that have shown that the Taser weapons are generally safe and effective,” the company wrote to Fusion.
There have been at least three other cases of people dying after being hit by a police Taser within the last few months. The Hartford Courant out of Connecticut noted that sixteen unarmed people in the state have died in the last decade after being hit by Tasers, compared to three unarmed people who died from police shooting in that state over the same period of time.
Back in Albany, it's "the third time in four years that a Capital Region man has died after being shocked by police armed with Tasers," reports the Times Union.
Last September, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple fired an Albany sergeant for allegedly misusing a Taser. Police dashcam footage captured the officer tasering a 16-year old who was kneeling with his hands on his head, when he was hit with the device.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.