Walker County School officer's Taser shot sparks controversy in LaFayette (with video)

Walker County School officer's Taser shot sparks controversy in LaFayette (with video)

May 25th, 2013 by Joy Lukachick Smith and Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

Screenshot from Youtube video shot by LaFayette student.

Screenshot from Youtube video shot by LaFayette student.

POLL: Do you think school security guards should use tasers?

Walker County Schools entered new territory Thursday when a police officer assigned to LaFayette High School turned a Taser stun gun on two girls brawling during lunch.

When a 28-second video of school resource officer Billy Mullis' Taser use surfaced on Facebook, it garnered hundreds of comments ranging from outrage -- "Tasing kids is excessive, dangerous and he deserves to be fired" -- to support -- "Pulling them apart would ... just cause more injuries. Ride the lightning ladies!"

The girls face criminal charges of affray, a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to a year in prison and a possible fine of up to $1,000.

LaFayette Police Chief Bengie Clift and Schools Superintendent Damon Raines support Mullis' decision to fire on the girls, ages 17 and 16. The 17-year-old, Alexus Garrett, will be charged as an adult, according to police.

"I couldn't have asked for him to do anything different," Clift said of the officer.

School officials now are trying to find the student who shot the cellphone video of the girls, who were rolling on a patio outside the school lunchroom while pulling hair and kicking and punching at one another.

The footage shows a girl shot with the Taser scream and roll face-down on the cement.

Raines said the student who recorded the fight violated policy. Students who bring cellphones to school have to sign an "appropriate use" policy in which they promise not to post photos and videos online.

But a First Amendment expert criticized the school for going after the teen who captured the action.

"A citizen has a First Amendment right to videotape the actions of police in public settings," said William Lee, a professor at the University of Georgia's Grady College. "This is just a PR effort to protect the image of the school."

Raines said that if school officials catch the student, he or she probably wouldn't be suspended, but likely would lose cellphone privileges.

The video was viewed more than 2,000 times before it was removed from YouTube on Friday afternoon.

School officials and police said Mullis started carrying a Taser in October and has warned students he had the weapon, but this was the first time he has used it.

Mullis was in the cafeteria Thursday when a teacher pointed out the window at a crowd forming, Clift said. In Mullis' report, he says he warned the girls several times before he fired the Taser. Alexus was hit first, and the 16-year-old got caught in the path of the wires.

On a community Facebook page, Alexus said she didn't hear the officer shout before the electricity shocked her.

Her mother, Samantha Foster, posted on the same page that the Taser darts penetrated the 17-year-old's breast.

"You need to take more training," she wrote. "In the side of the breast is not the place to tase anyone ... "

A San Francisco cardiologist testified in 2008 that a normal, healthy person could die from a Taser jolt if the shock was given in the right part of the chest during a vulnerable point in the heartbeat.

Dr. Zian Tseng of Vancouver, British Columbia, testified after a Tased man died at the airport there, according to a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. report.

Raines said, "I think there are concerns around any law enforcement technique. I have to trust [school resource officers] have been trained properly."

Lorie Fridell, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida, said it appears the officer's use of force was justified.

"Because he was the lone officer on the scene, there was not the ability to have one officer grab one girl and one officer grab another girl and separate them," she said. "If not the Taser, what would be deemed acceptable?"

Authorities said this is the first instance of stun gun use by a Walker County school resource officer. It was unclear late Friday whether resource officers in other area school districts are authorized to carry stun guns.

On the advice of the Walker school district's attorney, Raines wouldn't say whether the students had been suspended.

Mullis, a 1987 graduate of LaFayette High School, made an unsuccessful bid last year to unseat longtime Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Contact Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.