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Video of Cotati police using stun gun on resident goes viral

By
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 12:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 10:04 a.m.


A video of Cotati police officers entering a home and using a Taser on a resident went viral this week, prompting questions about the officers' tactics and whether a citizen must open the door for police.
The video, which was filmed May 10, shows officers responding to a report of a domestic disturbance at an apartment on Marsh Way, Chief Michael Parish said.
An officer investigating the 3:48 p.m. call from a concerned citizen heard a man yelling and a woman sobbing in the backyard, Parish said.
He called for backup.
What followed was an encounter in part captured on video with resident James Wood's cellphone. It shows Wood, his wife and their roommate refusing to let police inside and stating there was no domestic violence issue. The officers kicked in the door and deployed at least one round of Taser darts on Wood after the man moved toward an officer grabbing his wife's arm.
The video spread rapidly on the Internet, where the original YouTube video had been viewed more than 120,000 times by Wednesday evening and reposted dozens of times on YouTube and other social networking sites.
"People say: Why didn't you just open the door?" said James Wood, 33, an Army reservist. "They wouldn't tell me why they were there. They wanted to use force, they wanted to use intimidation, they wanted to flash their guns and intimidate me, a free man, into submitting."
Parish said his officers have an obligation to thoroughly investigate all reports of domestic disturbances.
"The officers simply cannot walk away from a domestic disturbance call without ensuring that all parties are safe and secure," Parish said.
Still, Parish said his department will launch an administrative review of the call, including the use of force, to determine if the officers acted appropriately.
Wood and his wife, Jennifer, 29, said they had been arguing in the backyard that day about whether to spend their tax refund on fixing their car or buying a new one.
Their roommate, James Helton, 32, was inside, putting the couple's 2-year-old daughter down for a nap when the officers knocked. The Woods' son was playing outside with a friend and his parent.
Helton said he went to the back door to tell the Woods police were at the door.
Officers said they heard Helton lock the door and decline their request to speak with him.
James Wood and Helton said that police had their guns drawn when they came to their front window.
"We had our hands up against the glass. We were more than happy to talk through the glass, or he can have dispatch call our cellphones," Helton said. "(An officer) became agitated and said, 'No you're going to do what I tell you to do.' "
Officers said there was too much glare on the window to see inside, Parish said.
Wood said he refused to open the door because the officers didn't explain why they were there and because he felt the law protected his right to keep unwanted people out of his home.
"If you want to arrest me, you haven't told me why, but you want me to let you into my house brandishing firearms?" Wood said in an interview Wednesday. "I have a Fourth Amendment right: If you don't have a search warrant or probable cause, I'm not opening that door."
Parish said the officers had announced they were there to investigate a domestic disturbance call.
The officers continued ordering them to open the door and come outside to talk, and the individuals inside continued to refuse.
"They could plainly see I was not in distress," Jennifer Wood said. "I honestly did not want them inside my home."
James Wood pulled out his cellphone and announced that he was recording the officers, holding his military ID in one hand, his phone in the other. At that point, according to Wood, the officers put away their guns and instead held Tasers.
"I was afraid we might get shot," he recalled. "The only thing I could think of is, 'I need to document this right now.' "
As the video rolled, Wood told the officers there was one child inside and another playing in the yard. In response to an inaudible comment from the officers he said: "You're coming inside without a warrant, probable cause, you're going to kick my door down?"
"Why are you guys not coming out?" an officer said.
"Because we don't live in a police state, sir," Helton said.
"Can you do us a favor, all get down on the ground and put your hands behind your back?" an officer said.
"We can't record if our hands are behind our back," Helton said. "We need documentation of this violation of our civil rights."
The officers appear to kick a door down and enter the home with weapons drawn. Jennifer Wood is partially shown standing with her hands up, but she had not complied with commands to get onto the ground.
An officer grabbed her arm, and her husband said:
"You have no right to be in here, you have no right to be here, do not touch her, do not touch her, you are assaulting her."
The officer deployed Taser darts at Wood, and his wife screamed.
The video ends.
The Woods and Helton said they were pushed to the ground and handcuffed. Parish said the officers said Jennifer Wood appeared to be "taking direction from James supporting the officer's belief that she was a domestic violence victim."
Wood was arrested on suspicion of resisting/obstructing officers and booked into the Sonoma County Jail, later released on bail. Jennifer Wood and Helton were cited for the same charge but not booked into jail.
The Woods and Helton said they believed strongly they were not required by law to open the door, and they felt the officers' use of force was unnecessary.
Although people do not always have to open the door for police, in this case they did, according to Parish.
The officers were investigating a domestic disturbance, which he said qualifies as an exigent circumstance, or an emergency situation, in which they do not need a warrant, Parish said.
"If the officers would have walked away and something happened, then the Police Department would have been criticized for not performing their duties," Parish said.
Parish said the administrative review had not yet begun and will involve interviewing all parties involved. However, he defended what he observed of his officers' behavior.
"It was a poor choice on their (the residents') behalf not to cooperate with law enforcement," Parish said. "My officers were very professional and very calm, and I'm proud of their performance."
Cotati Mayor Mark Landman said he asked the chief to issue a statement about the video but would not comment on the incident while it is under investigation.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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