Missoula police: Use of tasers on UM football players justified

2011-12-21T12:07:00Z 2011-12-21T18:03:13Z Missoula police: Use of tasers on UM football players justifiedBy GWEN FLORIO Missoulian The Billings Gazette
December 21, 2011 12:07 pm  • 

MISSOULA — Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir delivered a stinging rebuttal Wednesday to an allegation that police used excessive force in using a stun gun two University of Montana football players during a rowdy party.

That claim was "highly inaccurate," said the chief, adding that the officers' actions, "including the use of a Taser," were justified.

The excessive force accusation was leveled by Darla Keck, the attorney for backup quarterback Gerald Kemp and cornerback Trumaine Johnson, shortly after they were arrested Oct. 23.

On Wednesday, Keck fired back at Muir, saying that some of his comments — made while presenting the results of a mandatory department review on the use of force in the incident — were untrue.

And she said that while the players haven't made a decision about further legal action in the case, "it's certainly open."

Kemp and Johnson were arrested during an Oct. 23 post-game party at Johnson's apartment on North Russell Street. On Tuesday, they pleaded no contest in Missoula Municipal Court to misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges in connection with the incident. Charges of assault, resisting arrest and obstructing a peace officer were dropped in a plea deal.

"It was appropriate for these young men to accept responsibility for the underlying conduct which created the conflict with police that night," Muir said.

A report on the incident by Assistant Police Chief Mike Brady sketched the chaotic situation confronting police when they arrived at the party after a 911 noise complaint.

As their friends milled about, Kemp allegedly struck Officer Mitchell Lang's hand, and then hit Officer Pat Erbacher in the chest, according to the report. After Erbacher stunned Kemp with a Taser, Johnson hit Lang from behind and "grabbed onto" Erbacher from behind, Brady's report said. Johnson then was stunned, too.

Keck said after the arrest that excessive force was used on her clients, and that videos shot at the party would provide evidence.

"Those videos contained no such images," Muir said in Wednesday's news conference at City Hall to present the results of Brady's report. The videos, mostly from cellphones, were "sort of Blair Witch videos, where everything was going crazy." All showed incidents that occurred after Johnson and Kemp were already in custody, he said.

And, Muir said, "contrary to rumors, officers' language was not profane or racist, but was clearly unnecessary and contrary to our values."

Erbacher "engaged Trumaine Johnson in a needless manner, chastising him about his conduct," Muir said.

"Personnel actions were taken," he said, but he declined to detail them.

The report also was critical of officers' failure to obtain names and contact information for partygoers who could have served as witnesses. "Part of that blame was ours," Muir said.

"Witness information was very limited," he said. "It took a substantial effort" to obtain it, one that included sifting through news accounts for names of people at the party.

But when contacted, those potential witnesses weren't always cooperative," he said.

"One witness, when contacted, refused to give a statement on the advice of her attorney, who she identified as the same attorney representing Johnson and Kemp," Muir said.

"That is not true," Keck said Wednesday. "There was a witness and she said she didn't want to talk to them." Her office, she said, relayed that information to the City Attorney's Office.

Muir said police used force in only 200 of the nearly 4,000 arrests made in the past year. Each of those incidents prompted a review.

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