Late one night in October, 2010 a 17-year-old on a bike was chased by a police officer in a cruiser. When the boy refused to stop, the officer aimed his Taser out the driver’s window and fired. The boy fell off the bike and the cruiser ran over him, killing him.
Victor Steen was the fourth person who died in Florida in 2009 in an incident in which a Taser was used. It was the 57th such death since 2001, according to statistics compiled by Amnesty International and the St. Petersburg Times. At the time this placed Florida first in the nation as the state with the most fatalities related to Tasers, a weapon that delivers an incapacitating electrical jolt.
Victor lived with his mother, Cassandra Steen, in a two-bedroom house in West Pensacola. His father died a few years ago from diabetes. Victor had never been in trouble and was about to get his high school diploma, join the U.S. Army, then go to college in a few years.
Victor’s pastors, teachers, family and friends repeatedly described him as “respectful” and “loving,” with a “great sense of humor.”
“I work with a lot of kids who need guidance, but Victor wasn’t one of them. He has a very caring and considerate family and their light shone in him,” said Pensacola pastor Guy Johnson, 54.
On the night of his death, Victor went to a high school homecoming football game then over to a friend’s house to plan the birthday party of a child in the family.
“We wanted Victor’s help because he was so good with little kids,” said Victor’s friend, Mike Moultrie.
About 12:45 a.m., said Moultrie, Victor left on a borrowed bike. From there to where the chase started was about 41/2 miles. But it was about 1:45 a.m. that Officer Jerald Ard spotted Victor. Where Victor went after leaving Moultrie’s house is unclear.
Ard would later say that he tried to stop Victor because he had seen him at a construction site and thought he may have stolen something. But witness Victor Stallworth said he saw Victor ride his bicycle past the construction site without stopping. Months later, Ard gave investigators a different reason for stopping Victor: He didn’t have a light on his bike — only two reflectors.
A video camera on the dashboard of Ard’s squad car recorded the brief chase. Ard spotted Victor and did a fast U-turn to stop him. When Victor didn’t stop, Ard veered to the wrong side of the street and up on the sidewalk behind the teenager.
The officer revved the motor, his tires screeching, as he followed Victor into the side yard of an apartment building. With his flashers and PA system on, Ard yelled at Victor to “stop the bike.”
It is unclear why Victor disobeyed the order to stop, but the teenager continued pedaling, trying to escape. Ard followed his every move, driving in and out of the wrong lane of traffic and up onto the sidewalk again. One minute and seven seconds into the chase Ard fired his Taser at Victor, who made a turn into a parking lot. About two seconds later, Victor fell to the ground and Ard ran over him.
At first, Cassandra Steen said she didn’t want Ard punished, but suspecting the gun was a plant, she became less forgiving.
“Victor died a horrible, brutal death and, after that, his reputation was ruined by the gun. Someone besides Victor needs to be held accountable,” she said.
A coroner’s inquest was held in February so a Pensacola judge could decide who that should be. An assistant state attorney asked questions of witnesses and law enforcement. As is standard in an inquest, Steen family lawyers were not allowed to verbally question or cross-examine anyone.
Escambia County Judge John Simon concluded: “Mr. Steen desired to avoid apprehension on Oct. 3, 2009. That desire led to Mr. Steen’s ill-advised decision to ignore lawful commands … and enter a dimly lit parking lot unaware that a potential hazard was present i.e., the existence of a raised curb. Once Mr. Steen struck the raised curb, he was ejected directly into the path of Officer Ard’s vehicle. … It was impossible (based on perception reaction time) for Officer Ard to avoid striking Mr. Steen.”
The judge did not find Ard’s driving or firing the Taser out of his car window to be questionable in any way.
“Mr. Steen was actively fleeing Officer Ard. … Officer Ard violated no traffic laws in light of the fact that he was actively pursuing Mr. Steen.”
Afterward, Victor’s lawyers spoke on the courthouse steps: “This ain’t the old Wild West. It’s Pensacola 2010. It’s absolutely outrageous that a boy would be run over and killed for no tail light on a bike,” said Bill Cash.
On Oct. 3, when Victor died, the Pensacola Police Department policy didn’t specifically prohibit firing a Taser from a moving squad car at someone on a bike. But less than a week later, the deputy chief issued a memo, saying: “Firing a Taser from a moving vehicle or into a moving vehicle is prohibited.”
It didn’t make sense to fire a Taser at Victor on the bike, said Klinger, because of the likelihood he would get hurt. Furthermore, he said, Victor was not a suspect in a serious crime.
There is no question that Tasers frequently save lives by offering law enforcement officers a nonlethal means of stopping people who present a threat to the officers, the public or themselves. But as the four fatal cases from 2009 show, Tasers are also being used to subdue people who appear to pose no threat.
*Article originally published on Tampa Bay.