Police tase cleaning lady at Ooltewah Middle School after mistaking her for burglar

Ooltewah Middle School is located on Ooltewah-Ringgold Road.
Ooltewah Middle School is located on Ooltewah-Ringgold Road.

Two Collegedale, Tenn., police officers mistook a Guatemalan woman hired to clean Ooltewah Middle School for a burglar and used a Taser to stop her when she ran from them earlier this month, police records show.

Some experts say the officers used too much force when arresting the woman, while others say the men acted within policy and within the law that night. The officers detailed their actions during the Jan. 11 incident in a four-page affidavit that cites the department's use-of-force policy multiple times.

Sgt. Jamie Heath and Officer Brian Desmond first responded to the school on Ooltewah-Ringgold Road around 8:20 p.m. after Desmond noticed an open door at the facility, Heath wrote in the report. The men decided to check the school for intruders and began to clear the building with their guns drawn, he wrote.

The report does not say whether the men announced their presence as police officers. Once inside, the officers found some cleaning supplies outside a restroom and discussed whether or not cleaning staff were working that night. They weren't sure, the report states.

As they were checking a room that had two entrances, a woman in a blue T-shirt with the letters "ABM" on the front walked into the room at the entrance opposite the officers. She was not carrying anything.

"She obviously noticed us, as she looked directly at us, appearing to be nervous and somewhat reserved," Heath wrote in his report.

The officers kept their weapons drawn but not pointed at the woman, Heath wrote. The men asked the woman to identify herself, but she did not understand English and answered every question with "No," according to the report.

As Desmond tried to speak with the woman, she walked to the door where Heath was standing. He motioned for her to stop and asked for her "identificacion" and "licencia," according to the report. She said "no" and continued to slowly walk through the room.

She then rounded a corner and began to walk quickly away down a hallway, Heath wrote. He yelled "alto" - the Spanish word for stop - and the woman began to sprint away. The two men chased after her, running through the school's cafeteria, down a flight of stairs, out the building and into the parking lot. Heath warned the woman to stop or she would be shot with a stun gun, he said in his report.

When she didn't stop, he deployed his Taser while running behind her. The Taser hit the woman and she fell to the ground. They then called for medical attention, according to the report.

The woman, who gave several different names to officers and seemed to have trouble understanding both Spanish and English, was an employee of the cleaning company ABM, which regularly works in the school, ABM managers told police that night. Chas Strong, senior manager in corporate communications at ABM, declined to comment Friday.

The woman was charged with evading arrest and booked into jail under the name Juana Raymundo, 36. She was released on a $750 bond and is due in Collegedale Municipal Court on March 2.

Andrew Free, a Nashville attorney who specializes in immigration and civil rights, said that while the report is very detailed in some areas, the missing details raise questions. He wondered whether the officers were wearing uniforms or were in plain clothes, whether they were driving marked or unmarked cars, and why the officers didn't holster their weapons when they realized the woman was not behaving in a threatening way.

"This is a pretty defensively written report," he said. "I wonder if this is the same attention to detail that the officer gives every affidavit of complaint. And if so, why wasn't there more attention to detail noting whether they identified themselves as they were sweeping the building?"

The Collegedale Police Department's use-of-force policy allows officers to move beyond verbal force in five scenarios, including when a person is "unlawfully" fleeing. The policy also states police officers can use nondeadly force, like a Taser, to effect an arrest for a felony or misdemeanor.

Assistant Chief James Hardeman said the department has not received any formal complaints about the incident. He declined to speak further about the case or department policy because the woman's case is pending in court.

But Jon Shane, a former New Jersey police captain who now works as a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said he believes the officers acted appropriately.

"It sounds like a clear case of reasonable force," he said. "The officers must be right about the law when using force, but they can be mistaken about the facts. In this instance, the law would allow the officers to use a Taser to subdue a fleeing burglar, but the fact is that the woman was not a burglar."

His colleague, Maria Haberfield, a professor of police science at John Jay, disagreed, however. She said she thinks the officers used too much force because they had no evidence a burglary had been committed when they used the Taser.

"This was just an open door," she said. "There wasn't a report of burglary; there was a report of an open door. The officers didn't witness any extreme acts of vandalism or see that the computers were ripped out - there has to be some correlation between what they witnessed and the response."

Haberfeld said she would have rather seen the officers run after the woman and tackle her, instead of using the Taser.

The woman could not be reached for comment Friday. Stacy Johnson, executive director at La Paz Chattanooga, a nonprofit organization that works with the local Latino population, said she couldn't comment on this case specifically.

"It is always sad to hear stories like this," she wrote in an email. "La Paz Chattanooga is committed to building tolerance, opportunity and mutual understanding, to create an environment in which cultural acceptance can thrive."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas. Follow @ShellyBradbury.

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