Shane French is widely known around the small southwestern Colorado town of Cortez as a nuisance and a menace. He is mentally ill. He acts out in bizarre ways and has had more than his share of run-ins with law enforcement. But that didn’t justify what happened to him when officers crashed through the door of his home last year, shoved aside his blind father, and repeatedly jolted French with a stun gun.
That incident placed the 38-year-old French in the growing ranks of victims of heavy-handed policing and added another case to the too-frequent litany of officers overstepping boundaries and not taking responsibility nor suffering consequences. It also highlighted the particular part mental illness all too often plays in these cases.
French’s case didn’t make national headlines. But the details of the incident haven’t lost their shock value as French’s family weighs filing a lawsuit against the Cortez Police Department. French was jolted with a stun gun at least seven times after three officers burst through a door into his home on Valentine’s Day, 2014. In an incident that was poorly videotaped, they tackled French. They Tased him several times while one officer held him in a “bear hug” then threw him to the floor and jumped on top of him as he screamed, moaned and tried to escape from the officers.
French nicked one officer with a kitchen knife as he attempted to free himself. French was hit with the Taser five times more after he was handcuffed and was being placed in a police cruiser by three other officers who were waiting outside the home. As the incident was winding down, one officer could be heard using vulgar terms to say he should have shot French.
Even though French has a long rap sheet, Cortez Police Department officers weren’t at his home to arrest him for a crime that day. French’s mother had called asking officers to come to the home and help calm her 6’2” son. He had been acting out and refused to settle down. She said in her 911 call that he wasn’t violent, just very agitated. But the officers who went to the home didn’t try to calm French.
“The cops just went nuts. They love to be able to tase people, and there is no accountability. The door burst open. They shoved me aside, and they jumped on Shane while he was just standing there,” said French’s father, Glenn French. “From what I see on TV, stuff like this is going on constantly nowadays.”
What happened behind a bashed-in door at the Frenches became public knowledge because it landed in a courtroom after Shane French was charged with multiple counts of assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest. The details of the case raised hackles in a very conservative corner of the state where government overreach is viewed as a constant threat.
A jury acquitted Shane French of all charges. The jury found that he was justified in trying to defend himself against the officers because of Colorado’s Make My Day law. That 1985 law, formally known as the Homeowner Protection Act, gives residents the right to protect themselves in their own homes if someone illegally enters the home and there is reason to believe that person will commit a crime.
Cortez Police Department officers admitted in court that they rushed into the home and used force without giving any warnings to Shane French. They also admitted on the stand that they failed to give verbal warnings before they used Tasers as required in police department policies. They ignored another policy that states restrained subjects shouldn’t be shot with a Taser.
Yet, 15 months later, none of the officers who were involved in the incident at the Frenches’ home have been have been reprimanded or discharged. They have not been given additional training in the use of Tasers. One officer, Casey Eubanks, was ordered to undergo anger management counseling, but his police chief said it was not a punishment.
“His (Eubank’s) anger didn’t show up until after he had been stabbed. In my opinion, I thought he just needed help,” said Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane.
The stab wound Lane was talking about was treated with a Band-Aid, according to Eubanks’ testimony in court.
The Frenches have nine more months to file a lawsuit over the matter. Glenn and Patty French say winning such a lawsuit would not help with the seemingly insurmountable problem they have dealt with since Shane was a youngster.
The Frenches have placed their son in mental facilities in three states. He has always been discharged after a week to 10 days. He has been discharged with dozens of medications, but none have helped.
His mental illness highlights a complicating factor in a number of excessive-force cases. Many law enforcement officers aren’t trained to deal with the mentally ill. But officers are the ones left to handle the likes of Shane French in crisis situations because there are no good treatment options. That lack of training almost ensures there will be more incidents pitting French against officers.
“What are we supposed to do with someone like this?” asked Glenn French. “There are no mental facilities to take him.”
Shane’s parents and the law officers around Cortez, who know him well, dread future incidents and the violence that might come from either side.
“The mentally afflicted, they fall through the cracks more than anyone else. We just don’t have the ability to keep someone like him off the streets,” Chief Lane said. “Some day he will hurt somebody bad.”
Or, someone will hurt him bad.
Photo credit: Herman Turnip, Creative Commons, Flickr.