David Lee Martin was crossing the parking lot of the Simmons Bank at 2311 W. Seventh St. when patrol Officer Arthur Brophy spotted him the night of May 4.
It was dark and after hours. The bank was closed. Martin had been near the ATMs, according to police.
Brophy turned his car around and came back just as Martin ducked behind the business to the west of the bank. The officer activated his patrol car’s lights, and Martin took off running, police say. Brophy followed him into the Taco Bell parking lot and yelled for him to stop.
Police say Martin turned back toward Brophy and yelled: “I’ve got a gun. I’ll shoot you.”
The officer fired his stun gun and dropped Martin with it. The 38-year-old Joplin man hit his head on pavement as he fell and was knocked unconscious.
According to an aunt in Florida, Katherine Craig, doctors at Freeman Hospital West put him in a coma a couple of days later and removed a portion of his skull to relieve the swelling of his brain.
He did not regain consciousness for almost three weeks and has not been quite right since he did come around, she said.
“He doesn’t remember anything and actually thought his mother was alive,” Craig told the Globe in a telephone interview this past week.
She said Martin’s mother (her sister) died more than eight years ago. According to Craig, her nephew’s prognosis has not improved, and the family has been told that he might not make it. He was scheduled for surgery Friday to put back in place the portion of his skull that doctors removed, but ongoing infections forced curtailment of the operation.
The aunt said she is skeptical of the police account of what happened. She acknowledges that her nephew has served time in prison and run up against Joplin police several times in the past. But he has never even owned a gun, and his crimes have not been of a violent nature, she said.
“They know who he is and what all he’s capable of, and violence is not one of them,” Craig said.
Craig indicated that Martin’s family has contacted an attorney and is looking into the possibility of a lawsuit.
She also said she doubts that Martin would have claimed to have a gun or threatened to shoot an officer. She also does not believe he was suicidal and trying to get shot by the officer.
She said her nephew’s girlfriend was told by police initially that Martin was about a block away from the bank when the officer first spotted him and that officers were on the lookout at the time for a suspect who had been taking victims to ATMs and forcing them to withdraw cash and turn it over to him. There was a series of such robberies taking place in early May on Joplin’s south side. A suspect in those robberies eventually was arrested and charged in one of the cases.
Craig said the family believes police mistook Martin for the suspect in those robberies even though Martin is white and the suspect in the series of robberies had been reported by victims to be a black man.
Internal review clears officer
Police say the family is mistaken and that the incident involving Martin had nothing to do with their investigation of the other matter. As for the aunt’s skepticism that her nephew would have claimed to have a gun and threatened to shoot the officer, Joplin police Chief Matt Stewart said: “A body cam says otherwise.”
Stewart said the officer’s body cam caught the whole incident on video, which shows Martin doing what police say he did. He said a Joplin Police Department internal review board scrutinized the incident — as is done with every use of force by an officer — and determined that no violations of departmental policy took place.
“Obviously, that injury (to Martin) was never intended and (was) hard to be foreseen,” Stewart said. “The intention was to stop a threat.”
Martin is the second person in less than a year to suffer a severe head injury after Joplin police use of a stun gun.
James M. Wary, 37, of Pittsburg, Kansas, spent several days in an intensive care unit at a hospital in July of last year after having been hit by a police stun gun in the parking lot of the Walmart store at 2623 W. Seventh St. Wary also fell and hit his head on pavement. He had tried to run from an officer after initially providing a false name when police were called about his presence in the parking lot despite having been banned from the store’s premises.
The internal review board cleared Officer Isaac Costley of any wrongdoing in the incident last year.
Stewart said the two cases have not occasioned any changes in departmental policy regarding officers’ use of stun guns. Officers are taught to take four factors into consideration in the use of stun guns: the relative severity of the offense that a suspect is believed to have committed; the extent of the threat the suspect poses to the safety of officers or others; the ability to effect an arrest without use of a stun gun; and the risk of secondary injury to a suspect who falls.
An officer also should take his surroundings into account, Stewart said.
“We try to discourage use of them if (suspects) are in an elevated position, like on a roof or on a fence or wall, where there might be a higher fall,” he said.
Proximity to water is a similar consideration because that can pose a risk of drowning, Stewart said. But officers often have to make split-second decisions in tough situations and, ultimately, Joplin police officers’ use of force is “suspect-driven,” Stewart said.
The Joplin Police Department first began using stun guns in 2001. They continue to be heralded by their manufacturer and various police groups as one of the safest options an officer has available in a use-of-force situation. But there is no national tracking of police use of stun guns, the deaths and injuries they cause, and the risk of lawsuits they pose for law enforcement agencies.