July 15, 2008

Law & disorder - The family of a Louisville man who died after being Tasered blames police

It started as a fight between two brothers. But when a Louisville Metro Police officer used a Taser to subdue one of the men, the family dispute on Delaware Drive turned deadly.

After being struck with 50,000 volts of electricity, Isaac Bass collapsed on the small patch of lawn in front of his family’s modest brick home as his relatives watched in horror. The 34-year-old never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead less than an hour later.

Now, the victim’s family is accusing police of killing an unarmed man and attempting to cover up their use of excessive force.

“Police didn’t have to do it that way. They shouldn’t have done it,” says Ernest Bass Jr., just days after burying his younger brother. “It could have ended a better way.”

PHOTO BY Sarah Kelley: Isaac Bass, 34, died outside his Delaware Drive home on July 2 after a Metro Police officer Tasered him during an altercation.
PHOTO BY Sarah Kelley: Isaac Bass, 34, died outside his Delaware Drive home on July 2 after a Metro Police officer Tasered him during an altercation.

Ernest Bass says he was home when police responded to the Newburg neighborhood on the night of July 2, and claims that one officer charged toward his brother with gun drawn, and that another beat him in the head with a flashlight before Tasering him.

Citing an ongoing investigation, police have released few details about what transpired that night, other than to say Bass was aggressive toward officers. 

“One officer was struck by his own flashlight,” says Alicia Smiley, police spokeswoman, explaining that Bass somehow managed to grab the light. “There was also a struggle over the officer’s weapon.”

The officers — Keith Heselschwerdt and Larry Wagner — will remain on paid administrative leave until the investigation is resolved. In the meantime, Smiley will not say which officer deployed a Taser. In addition, she won’t say whether either officer brandished a firearm, or struck Bass with a flashlight, as his family claims.

Toxicology results revealing whether Bass was on drugs when he died are not expected for several weeks, but Ernest Bass Jr. admits that his brother struggled with addictions to alcohol and crack. “But Isaac was a good person,” he says. “A very sweet person.” 


Bass is the second person to die after being struck by a Taser since Metro Police began using the supposedly non-lethal device in December 2005. In September 2006, an officer Tasered Larry Noles, who was acting erratically and wandering naked at Seventh Street and Algonquin Parkway. An autopsy later blamed the 52-year-old’s death on excited delirium, a controversial term sometimes used to describe the sudden deaths of mentally ill or drug-addicted individuals in police custody.

The recent death of Isaac Bass has prompted the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky to once again urge the department to scale back its use of Tasers, which generate 50,000 volts of electricity and are intended to temporarily incapacitate someone.

“Our real concern is that too often Tasers have become so prevalent that they are being used in situations other than those that require deadly force,” says Michael Aldridge, executive director of ACLU-KY. “They are being used by many law enforcement officers as a routine force option on individuals who pose no serious dangers to themselves or others.”

Metro officers used Tasers in 189 separate incidents in 2007, according to the department. Of those suspects shocked by the device, 20 required medical attention as a result.

In a letter mailed to police last Friday, the ACLU asked Chief Robert White to alter the department’s Taser policy, which currently permits officers to use the stun guns to overcome “actual or anticipated resistance by the suspect.” The ACLU suggests officers should only be allowed to Taser a suspect in cases where there is imminent threat to human life. 

The ACLU made the same recommendation two years ago, but White denied the request, saying he was not aware of any court ruling concluding Tasers are anything but non-lethal devices.

That’s no longer the case.

Just last month, a federal jury in California reached an unprecedented decision in finding Taser International responsible for the death of a man who had been shocked by one if its weapons. The jury exonerated the officers who Tasered the man, blaming the manufacturer for failing to warn police that the product was potentially lethal.

“This is a monumental decision that shows that Tasers really are more harmful than previously thought, and that police departments really should review their policies,” Aldridge says. “The fact that another death has occurred by the use of a Taser, we would like to reiterate the request that the Louisville Metro Police change their policy.”