Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Lawsuit: Diabetic 'pummeled,' shocked by Hamilton County deputies
By Sharon Coolidge
John Harmon was coming off a late night at work when he left his downtown marketing firm for his Anderson Township home just after midnight in October 2009.
The 52-year-old longtime diabetic's blood sugar levels had dipped to a dangerously low level causing him to weave into another lane.
A Hamilton County sheriff's deputy spotted him on Clough Pike and suspected drunken driving.
What happened over the next two minutes and 20 seconds should never happen to anyone, Harmon said.
Deputies broke the window of Harmon's SUV, shocked him seven times with a Taser, cut him out of his seatbelt and wrestled him to the ground, severely dislocating his elbow, and causing trauma to his shoulder and thumb.
The deputies' actions prompted a state highway patrol trooper to pull one deputy away from Harmon because he was so concerned about how Harmon was being treated. That trooper alerted his bosses to the deputies' actions.
Even after learning the incident was a medical emergency, deputies charged Harmon with resisting arrest and failing to comply with a police officer's order.
"I thought for sure I was going to die," Harmon said. "I remember praying to God, 'Help me through this.'"
Harmon, a tall and burly black man, owns a marketing company with his wife. He said he moved to the mostly white township for its good schools, and said he believes he wouldn't have gotten the same treatment if it was a white man.
"I do think that maybe (race) was a factor," Harmon said. "Just out of common decency some of the things that were done here don't make sense, even if I were drunk."
Harmon and his wife, Stephanie Harmon, filed a civil rights lawsuit Dec. 20 in U.S. District Court against Hamilton County, the sheriff's office and four deputies: Ryan Wolf, Matthew Wissel, John Haynes and Shawn Cox, and their supervisor, Sgt. Barbara Stuckey.
The couple allege that Harmon's civil rights were violated because of his false arrest, malicious prosecution and the excessive force used. They also cited battery; malicious prosecution; intentional infliction of emotional distress and loss of consortium. They want an unspecified amount of compensation.
Settlement talks that started with a demand of more than $1 million deteriorated earlier this month. That's when Harmon filed the lawsuit.
A sheriff's office investigation found excessive force was used, and four of the officers involved were punished.
The deputies involved were asked through sheriff's officials to comment. None returned calls.
'A chilling experience'
The lawsuit details what happened on the morning of Oct. 20, 2009.
Deputy Wolf saw Harmon driving a 1998 Ford Expedition erratically near Wolfangel Road and pulled Harmon over.
Wolf, his gun drawn, and Wissel approached the SUV, the lawsuit said.
"The deputy's face was extremely contorted, he was screaming," Harmon said. "I remember being taken aback, recoiled and thought, 'What's going on?' I was being presented with pure evil, it was a chilling experience."
Wolf smashed the driver's side window.
Wissel shocked Harmon with a Taser for the first time. Deputy Haynes responded to the deputies' call for backup.
Harmon said the officers tried to yank him out of the SUV, but he was caught in his seat belt. He was stunned with a Taser again.
Wissel cut Harmon out of his seat belt. In his suit, Harmon said he was "violently dragged from the vehicle, thrown on the ground, kicked in the head by a boot, and stomped mercilessly while laying on his back."
"It all happened so quick, I didn't have time to think or react," Harmon said. "I just remember being on the ground, the intense pain and being pummeled."
The attack was so brutal Harmon said he thought it was a gang attack, not a traffic stop.
Harmon would be shocked five more times. In all, three times by Wissel and four times by Haynes.
As Harmon begged for mercy, Deputy Cox arrived.
Ohio State Highway Patrol Trooper Chris Sanger also drove up, his patrol car dashboard camera capturing some of what happened and the sounds of what appear to be a beating.
Sanger told sheriff's investigators he saw Harmon on the ground, crying out in pain, with several deputies on top of him. He added Harmon was complying and at least one of the Taser hits was excessive use of force.
Sanger separated Wolf and Harmon twice because of Wolf's abusive treatment, according to the lawsuit.
At some point, the deputies found Harmon's diabetic kit on the floor of the SUV. When asked if he was diabetic, Harmon replied, "Yes."
Paramedics called to the scene by the deputies found Harmon's blood sugar was dangerously low.
Still, Wolf filed felony charges. His boss, Sgt. Stuckey, signed off on them, according to the sheriff's office.
Harmon was taken to University Hospital where he was treated and released. He was then booked into the Hamilton County Jail and spent five hours in a holding cell.
Harmon said he prayed the whole time.
Meanwhile, Sanger told his bosses at the highway patrol what happened. They called the sheriff's office.
Col. Ramon Hoffbauer, the sheriff's patrol division commander, wrote in the investigation's conclusion that once the deputies learned Harmon had low blood sugar it should have been clear a medical emergency caused the erratic driving - not alcohol.
"In my opinion, the breaking of the window, the repeated use of the Taser and the manner in which Mr. Harmon was removed from his vehicle was clearly an excessive use of force and is unacceptable behavior," Hoffbauer wrote. "In addition to the use of force issue, the fact criminal charges were filed against Mr. Harmon, knowing his conduct was possibly the result of a diabetic emergency, was inappropriate to say the least."
Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis doesn't comment on pending litigation, but paperwork show four of those involved in the traffic stop were suspended without pay.
For violating the sheriff's office rules on use of excessive force, Haynes was suspended 10 days without pay. Wissel was suspended five days and Wolf for two days.
Stuckey was suspended for 10 days for violations related to the paperwork about the incident and for wrongly authorizing formal charges. No wrongdoing was found on Cox's part.
The patrol officers - who all earn about $56,000 a year - are still at work, reassigned to Colerain Township, said Lt. Edwin Boldt, the sheriff's lawyer.
Stuckey appealed her suspension to an arbitrator, who has yet to make a decision. She still works in Anderson Township and earns $65,930 a year.
After the incident, all sheriff's deputies were trained to recognize the medical symptoms of diabetes, Boldt said.
Harmon said it's disturbing the deputies weren't fired. Even the ones not directly involved in the attack watched it happen and didn't intervene, he said.
"I'm so thankful the state trooper got there," Harmon said. "If not, I believe I may have been killed."
Leis, during a settlement talk, apologized.
"I appreciated that," Harmon said. "I thought there are people who realize the outrageousness of this and want to do the right thing."
Two weeks after the traffic stop, prosecutors dismissed the charges against Harmon.
But, there are after effects - physical and mental.
Harmon has had three surgeries on his elbow and one on his thumb, which he couldn't move for weeks. Doctors tell him he may eventually have to get a shoulder and elbow replacement. He has insurance, but his medical bills are nearing $100,000.
Panic attacks come when Harmon simply sees a deputy driving nearby.
"Be calm," he has to caution himself. "Don't look their way."
A recent trip to Colerain Township - where the officers now work - prompted him to look over his shoulder the whole time.
"It's disturbing that I have to live like this," he said.
At that point, for the first time in the 90-minute interview, Harmon put his face in his hands and quietly cried.
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