In the moments before Zachary N. Bearheels died, Omaha police officers shocked the handcuffed man with a stun gun 12 times in a matter of minutes.
Bearheels, an Oklahoma man with a history of mental illness, was resisting officers’ attempts to take him into custody in the early morning of June 5, according to Omaha’s police chief.
After the electric shocks failed to incapacitate the 29-year-old man, an officer pulled Bearheels to the ground, grabbed his ponytail, and dragged him to the police car, authorities said. Another officer punched him in the head repeatedly while the shocks continued.
Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer focused on these moments in a detailed account of the incident, which he said violated the department’s “policies, procedures, training and culture and the whole nine yards.”
“In this incident, despite our extensive training, we failed,” Schmaderer said in a news conference Friday.
Schmaderer identified the officers as Scott Payne, Ryan McClarty, Jennifer Strudl and Makyla Mead. He is recommending that two of them be fired but declined to identify them.
The Omaha World-Herald subsequently reported that Schmaderer wants to fire Payne, the officer who used the stun gun, and McClarty, the officer who punched and dragged Bearheels. Strudl and Mead, the other two officers at the scene, were placed on paid administrative leave while an internal investigation continues.
Bearheels’s death spurred shock and outrage from his family and drew concerns in Omaha over how its police officers deal with mentally ill people. His mother told police and local news outlets that her son was bipolar and schizophrenic. Relatives and others on social media also pointed to Bearheels’ Native American heritage, sharing his story on a Facebook page titled “Native Lives Taken by Police.”
Although it is not clear exactly why Bearheels died, blunt force trauma is not the preliminary cause of death, Schmaderer said. Final autopsy results are pending.
A grand jury will convene to investigate the officers’ use of force, as required by state law. But depending on what the evidence shows, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine “could decide to charge officers without going through a secret grand jury proceeding,” the Omaha World-Herald reported.
Police vehicle cameras captured various parts of the confrontation between Bearheels and police, but the video and audio recordings will not be released publicly until the aftermath of grand jury proceedings or during a possible criminal court case, Schmaderer said.
Bearheels’s interactions with Omaha police actually began much earlier on the weekend leading up to his death. The police chief detailed how the events unfolded:
On the night of June 3, Bearheels arrived in Omaha on a bus from South Dakota, headed to his mother’s home in Oklahoma City. Because of his “conduct” and a complaint from a bus passenger, he was not allowed to board the bus, and he left the station.
The following night, Bearheels’s mother called Omaha police to report that her son was missing and suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. About two hours later, at about 12:40 a.m., police responded to a call at a gas station convenience store, where Bearheels was refusing to leave the premises. When they arrived, he was dancing in front of the store, Schmaderer said.
His speech was “garbled” and he appeared impaired, Schmaderer said. When police asked him for his identification, he suddenly raised his hands and stepped toward one of the officers. Because of his “erratic behavior” officers handcuffed him but offered to take him wherever he needed to go.
Police contacted his mother, Renita Chalepah, and allowed her to speak with him over the phone while he was in custody. She could tell by the way he was speaking that he was not taking his medications, Chalepah told the Omaha World-Herald.
“I heard him say ‘Mama, mama,’ ” she said. “And then another voice.”
His mother and the police officers ultimately agreed they would take him to the bus station.
When an officer opened the police car door to put a seat belt on him, he immediately got out of the vehicle and began to resist the officers’ efforts to keep him in custody, Schmaderer said. Arriving as backup on the scene, police officer McClarty also struggled to get Bearheels back to the cruiser, with each officer grabbing a limb as they carried him. Bearheels managed to break free and land on his feet.
At this point, Payne shouted, “Taser, Taser,” warning Bearheels multiple times that he would be shocked. He discharged the stun gun, striking him in the abdomen and right thigh. McClarty then dragged Bearheels to the cruiser by his ponytail and waistband, Schmaderer said.
As Bearheels sat on the ground at the rear of the cruiser without resisting, McClarty continued to use the stun gun on him, violating police department policy, procedures and training, Schmaderer said.
Still seated, Bearheels managed to pull his left hand out of the handcuffs, swinging his arms and kicking his legs at McClarty. The officer responded by punching him in the head repeatedly and attempting a neck restraint.
Shortly after medics arrived at 1:50 a.m., they said that Bearheels had stopped breathing and did not have a pulse. He was taken to a hospital and was pronounced dead at 2:16 a.m.
Schmaderer said all of the officers involved had less than five years of experience, and “inexperience was a great factor in this situation.” But the officers were properly trained in handling such situations and dealing with mentally ill individuals, he said.
“On this call seemingly no one took charge and our training and policies were not followed and a tragic outcome was the result,” Schmaderer said. He condemned the officer’s repeated use of the stun gun and said he should have stopped after the third electric shock, when he realized the stun gun was not working on Bearheels.
“The Omaha Police Department made a mistake on this occasion, and we’re doing whatever we need to correct it,” Schmaderer said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska released a statement demanding a full review of the department’s use of force policies, and said the incident served as “a reminder that Tasers are lethal weapons and that they should only be used as a last resort.”
Though deaths after stun gun usage by police are relatively rare, an investigation by The Washington Post revealed that at least 48 people nationwide died during the first 11 months of 2015 — about one a week — from incidents in which police used stun guns. More than half suffered from mental illness or had illegal drugs in their system at the time.
On Tuesday night, a group gathered near the Omaha gas station for a vigil, leaving flowers and holding up signs displaying words such as “Zachary needed a doctor not a Taser. Mental health is not a crime.”
Speaking to local news station KETV, Bearheels’s aunt, Tracy Poafpybitty, said police “failed the family and they failed Zach most of all.”
Mitchell Chalepah, Bearheels’s younger brother, described him to the Omaha World-Herald as a quiet man who liked writing music, smiling, laughing and playing basketball.
“He was trying to come home,” Mitchell Chalepah told KETV. “That was it. He just wanted to come home.”
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