OMAHA — The Oklahoma man who died after Omaha police shocked him with a stun gun suffered from mental illness and had been wandering, lost, in Omaha for a day after being kicked off an interstate bus, his family says.
Zachary N. Bearheels, 29, died early Monday after Omaha police used a Taser on him during a confrontation at the Bucky’s gas station at 6003 Center St.
Bearheels’ mother, Renita Chalepah, from Oklahoma, said she is heartbroken because she had called Omaha police on Sunday, seeking their help with her son.
Omaha police have said Bearheels was acting erratically as police attempted to take him into custody. Full details from police are not yet available because the department has not completed all of its interviews.
Chalepah said she called Omaha police early Sunday afternoon after her son didn’t get off the bus in Oklahoma City. She had been waiting for him at the bus station and learned from another passenger that he’d been ordered off in Omaha.
Chalepah said she remained in contact with Omaha police throughout the afternoon and into the evening. She spoke with her son — while he was with police — a few hours before he died. She said she could tell by his voice that he’d gone off his medications.
“I heard him say ‘Mama, mama,’ And then another voice.”
Her son was bipolar and schizophrenic, she said.
She said she asked officers to take him to the bus station or a crisis center. Her son was frightened of police but was accustomed to going to a crisis center, she said, because that’s what police in Oklahoma do. Omaha police, she said, told her they couldn’t place him under emergency care because he wasn’t a threat to himself or others.
“When I found out this (Monday) morning what happened to him, it broke my heart, because I kept in touch with these people,” she said. “What happened to my son? Why did they tase him like that?”
Omaha police spokesman Officer Phil Anson said the full details of the encounter between Bearheels and police will be released once police interviews are completed. Four officers were involved in Bearheels’ arrest. One has been interviewed. The rest will be interviewed this afternoon. All four are on paid administrative leave. Their names have not yet been released by police.
In a preliminary press release, police describe the incident his way:
Officers were called to the Bucky’s at 12:36 a.m. Monday to handle a disturbance in which a man was refusing to leave.
When they arrived, officers took the man into custody. He had been reported missing by family and was displaying erratic behavior, the release said.
About an hour later, at 1:32 a.m., officers requested additional help at the scene.
Ten minutes later, they requested an ambulance after a Taser use. The man was taken to the Nebraska Medical Center with CPR in progress. He was pronounced dead on arrival.
As required by state law, a grand jury will be convened to investigate the officers’ actions.
Bearheels’ mother said her son was fine when he left Oklahoma to go to South Dakota.
“He has traveled to South Dakota before,” she said. “He’s stable when he’s on his medications. He can think on his own, he can function. Otherwise, I would never let my son get on the bus with him being mental like that.”
Bearheels’ family wants a full accounting from police, his aunt, Tracy Poafpybitty, said, including any camera images, witness statements and police policy on the use of Tasers.
“We are all in shock because he was supposed to come home and he never made it,” she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska released a statement Monday calling for a thorough investigation, a review of the department’s policy and police training on de-escalation.
“Unfortunately, the (Omaha Police Department’s) policy does not have clear written guidelines for use of a Taser on people experiencing a mental health crisis, people using medication to address mental health issues, or people under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” said Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska. “This is a reminder that Tasers are lethal weapons and that they should only be used as a last resort.”
The group released a report in 2014 on the use of Tasers by Nebraska law enforcement agencies. It said 47 of 63 Taser incidents from six agencies within a year and a half were inappropriate. The Omaha Police Department was not one of the agencies evaluated.
The Omaha department’s guidelines for officers using Tasers are outlined in seven pages of the department’s policies and procedures manual.
Officers must have at least two and a half years of law enforcement experience to carry a Taser and must score at least 80 percent on an annual proficiency exam, among other requirements. Anson, the police spokesman, said not all uniform patrol officers are equipped with Tasers.
Officers can use a Taser when dealing with people who pose a risk to themselves or are actively resisting officers’ attempts to bring them under control, according to the manual.
There’s a higher standard for use — “elevated justification" — in certain circumstances, including if the subject is known to be pregnant, is frail or infirm or very young or very old. Officers are generally prohibited from using a Taser on a handcuffed suspect or to threaten or intimidate people.
Officers should avoid sensitive areas (head, throat, groin) when using a Taser, and call for an ambulance after use.
In 2005, under Chief Thomas Warren, the department increased the threshold for when officers are authorized to use Tasers. Previously, using a Taser was equated with techniques such as pressure points, which are not intended to cause injury.
Tasers have been linked to a handful of deaths in the past 12 years in eastern Nebraska.
In 2005 David Moss Jr., 26, went into cardiac arrest after Omaha police used a stun gun on him. He had been outside a home growling and salivating. An autopsy determined that Moss had a toxic level of PCP in his body, and a grand jury found no criminal wrongdoing in his death.
In 2008 a grand jury cleared a Lincoln police officer who used a stun gun on Gabriel Bitterman, 23. Bitterman, who had forced his girlfriend into a bedroom at knifepoint, stopped breathing after being shocked. An autopsy determined that he died from asphyxiation.
Last year, Alex Zoucha, 31, died after Bellevue police used a stun gun on him. Police say Zoucha was raging and screaming about Jesus, the devil and his grandmother while in a street in a residential area. Zoucha was shocked multiple times. He stopped breathing and died within the hour.
Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov said the cause of death was “excited delirium” with contributing factors of abuse of two over-the-counter cough and allergy medicines. The Bellevue officers involved were cleared by a grand jury.
A 2011 article published in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine says excited delirium occurs suddenly and includes symptoms such as “bizarre and/or aggressive behavior, shouting, paranoia, panic, violence toward others.”
World-Herald staff writer Emily Nitcher contributed to this report.
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