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Students protest against ‘police brutality’

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – It wasn’t pretty, but it may have been justifiable.

The force used to subdue a University of Florida student with a Taser weapon at a Monday night forum with former presidential candidate John Kerry appears to conform to university police guidelines, a review of the policy shows.

The agency’s policy resembles those of other agencies in stating that officers should use the amount of non-deadly force “that is reasonably necessary to protect officers or others from harm or to effect the lawful arrest of an individual.”

At the same time, the videotaped event continues to spark outrage on the Gainesville campus and across the country. More than 1 million viewers had viewed video of the arrest on YouTube.com by Wednesday evening, and the controversy sparked new student protests on campus and calls for an end to Tasers on campus.

About 50 students marched in the rain Wednesday carrying signs reading “Taser pigs” and “No police state.” They also filed grievances against the officers involved in the arrest of Andrew Meyer, 21, of Weston, Fla.

“They banned speech in the halls of education,” said 20-year-old Benjamin Dictor, a junior political science major. “It is unacceptable.”

The police department was deluged with callers and e-mailers, most of them accusing police of brutality and censorship. Capt. Jeff Holcomb said he has gotten calls from as far away as England.

Six officers were involved in the arrest. University police officials have placed two on administrative leave pending an independent investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Meyer was shocked with a Taser after event organizers asked police to remove him when he continued to heckle the senator and struggled repeatedly with officers trying to remove him from a university auditorium.

He was charged with resisting an officer with violence, a felony, and disturbing the peace by interfering with school administration functions, a misdemeanor.

University Police Lt. Alton McDilda, who runs the department’s training program, said force guidelines are based on a suspect’s behavior.

“You have to have some threat of danger to the officer of possible violence,” McDilda said. “The officer-subject ratio is always taken into consideration and the size and ability of the subject.”

The department’s 18-page use of force policy is similar to others around the state, including the Orlando Police Department and Orange County Sheriff’s Office. In situations where a person is displaying “active physical resistance” – evasive movements or pushing or pulling away from an officer – use of a baton, chemical spray or Taser is permitted.

A video of the event shows Meyer forcibly being led from a microphone in the audience and walked to the back of the auditorium. There, he breaks free from officers pushes away, then falls with officers to the ground. As he repeatedly asks, “What did I do wrong?” he struggles and kicks, according to an arrest report.

At one point, he is warned to stop resisting or he will be Tasered. Sgt. Eddie King instructed Officer Nicole Mallo to stun Meyer after repeatedly being unable to handcuff both his hands, the report states.

“Under those facts, the use of a Taser is totally reasonable,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminal justice professor who is conducting a study for the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice on Tasers.

“It’s technically justifiable, but I don’t think it was necessary. They could have subdued him with the group of officers they had.”

“The question is whether he posed a reasonable threat to the officers that had no other way to get him under control.”

Alpert, who reviewed the police report and video of the incident for the Orlando Sentinel, said the officers’ accounts of the arrest provide much more detail than the videotaped struggle obscured by seats, bystanders and police. If officers could not subdue Meyer using body pressure points, the Taser was justifiable, he said.

Orange County Sheriff’s Capt. David Ogden, a use of force expert with three martial arts black belts, said the Gainesville incident appeared to be a “textbook,” justified use. Tasers, he said, prevent further injury to officers and suspects.

“Use of force isn’t pretty,” said Ogden. “Nobody doesn’t say the Taser doesn’t hurt. But the second it’s done, it’s done.”

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said he was disturbed by the Gainesville case, however.

“It appears not to have been an appropriate use of a Taser. It’s not clear if there was a need for police intervention in the first place,” Simon said.

University police said 80 of the department’s 90 officers are armed with Tasers. Holcomb said they have been used 17 times since 2001.

Officers Mallo and King were placed on administrative leave during the FDLE review. Mallo, 30, was hired in January 2004 and her file shows several complaints about her demeanor with the public. It also contains several letters of commendation, including preventing a 2004 suicide where a student was armed with a knife.

King, 45, a 13-year department veteran, was suspended for four days in 2002 because of engaging in three romantic relationships with employees. His personnel files praises his supervisory skills and his calm and “professional demeanor.”

On Wednesday, UF President Bernie Machen assured the public that the incident will be reviewed fully by the Alachua County State Attorney and FDLE. He said they would determine whether policy changes need to be made.

“I want you to know I hear you loud and clear and share many of your concerns,” Machen said. “What I regret most of all about the incident that occurred during a political forum is the lack of civil discourse, which is the keystone of an academic institution such as ours.”

Jim (Leusner reported from Orlando, and Katie Fretland reported from Gainesville.)

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