Bend officer cleared in Taser case

District Attorney says officer justified in use of force that led to man's death

By Sheila G. Miller / The Bulletin

Published Dec 5, 2012 at 04:00AM

A Bend police officer used lawful, justified force in an altercation outside St. Charles Bend in August that led to the death of a 64-year-old Bend man, according to a report issued Tuesday by the Deschutes County District Attorney.

Jerry Nichols died Aug. 20, eight days after the incident with Officer Steve Craig. Nichols became combative with hospital staff and Craig shot him with a Taser and slapped him.

His wife, Barbara Nichols, said she's not satisfied with the report and doesn't believe the use of force was justified.

According to an autopsy performed by the state Medical Examiner's office, Nichols' death was caused by brain injury brought on by pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases and the “physiologic stress due to an altercation.” The manner of death was listed as homicide.

But in his report, District Attorney Patrick Flaherty differentiated between “homicide” and “criminal homicide,” noting the medical examiner uses homicide as a “neutral term” to describe one person's act causing another person's death.

Bend Police Capt. Jim Porter said he believed the report was accurate and consistent with all the evidence and video he'd seen.

“We believe Officer Craig handled the situation in an exemplary manner,” Porter said.

“From the time he arrived, he was approached in less than two seconds by Mr. Nichols. Within two seconds, Mr. Nichols clearly, from the videotape, engaged and attempted to assault and punch Officer Craig.He used the least amount of force possible to stop an assault.”

Craig is currently on active duty.

In the report, Flaherty wrote that Nichols arrived at the hospital on Aug. 12 at 6:13 p.m., complaining of shortness of breath. Nichols became combative with hospital staff and left the emergency room to sit on a picnic table outside the hospital.

“One of the nurses commented that Mr. Nichols was about to 'code,' meaning about to have a cardiac, or respiratory arrest, based on his current medical status,” Flaherty wrote.

Staff called 911, and dispatch told police officers Nichols was “out of control, had assaulted a nurse, was threatening to stab hospital staff and who claimed to be a professional fighter.”

When Craig responded to the scene, the report states, Nichols immediately approached him and “verbally challenged” him.

Craig backed away, trying to calm Nichols, but the man tried to hit the officer. At that time, the officer fired his Taser at Nichols, but it wasn't effective.

Porter said Craig was too close to Nichols for the Taser to properly disable the man.

“At that close a distance, the probes do not have adequate time to separate and space out,” he said. “It causes pain, but (not enough) to cause the muscles to lock up.”

Craig then hit Nichols, who fell to the ground but continued to be combative. Nichols then suffered a heart attack.

Hospital staff performed CPR on Nichols, who died eight days later.

In a September interview, Barbara Nichols said her husband suffered from a variety of illnesses, including diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and that he had begun to suffer from mild dementia.

On Tuesday, she said she was not satisfied with the DA's report.

“I'm just angry, because I don't think it was justified. They shouldn't have done what they did to him,” she said. “He was not a man on drugs; he was just trying to fight to survive.”

She doesn't believe the police should have used a Taser on her husband.

“They could have just grabbed an arm and handcuffed him,” she said. “He had no weapon except his hands. I don't understand why they think that's justified.”

In his report, Flaherty wrote that Craig had no way of knowing Nichols' medical history and believed Nichols was about to attack him.

“Officer Craig responded to the perceived threat posed by Mr. Nichols as he was trained to do,” Flaherty wrote. “Under the circumstances presented, his use of physical force was legally justified.”

Said Porter, “This is tragic for the Nichols family. It's tragic for the officer involved. It's tragic all the way around.”

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