Brendan J. Lyons
Times Union, Albany, N.Y.
Two Catskill police officers ran out of their station’s lobby and shut the door behind them when a 29-year-old man they were trying to subdue burst into flames in front of them after one of the officers fired a Taser at him.
A third officer involved in the fatal encounter also ran away, moving toward the front door of the station, where he appeared to stand around the corner of an interior wall rather than rush to the aid of the man who was burning in front of him.
Jason Jones, who had doused himself with flammable hand sanitizer seconds before the officer fired his Taser, fell to the ground and was left to use his hands to try and put out the flames that had engulfed his upper body and head. He died last month after spending 47 days on a ventilator in an intensive care unit at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse.
Surveillance video of the disturbing encounter was released Friday by the state attorney general’s office. That office took over the investigation under a 2015 Executive Order issued by former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that empowers the attorney general to investigate fatal encounters between police and unarmed civilians.
The video raises questions about the officers’ actions, including whether they followed their training and protocols.
A law enforcement official who has extensive experience training police officers on the use of force — and who spoke to the Times Union on the condition of not being identified because he is not involved in the Catskill investigation — said that his officers are instructed to never use a Taser on an individual who may have been recently exposed to a flammable liquid, including hand sanitizer, which contains alcohol.
He said the officers also should have immediately shifted their actions to trying to assist Jones when he caught fire, likening it to the imperative to pull a suspect from a burning car if they crash during a vehicle pursuit.
“Once the threat has been stopped, you don’t just say, ‘I’m going to let that person burn,'” the official said.
The video shows the officer who fired the Taser walking back through the interior station door into the lobby and appearing to try to help Jones, who by that time had managed to put out the flames.
The video shows that officer briefly try to pull Jones’ arm behind his back, and then stop. Jones remains on his knees and appears to be in physical distress as he continued speaking with the officers. There is no audio, but the officers appear to be trying to ask Jones to remain calm.
A few minutes later, a civilian who did not know Jones — but had seen the incident through a window — is shown on the video entering the station and trying to console Jones, hugging him. That man stays in the station with Jones, who appears distressed but remained calm as the officers are seen speaking to him as they wait for paramedics to arrive. The clock and date on the station video are not accurate — the incident occurred after midnight on Oct. 31.
“Jason was unarmed, in the police station, and not threatening anyone when the police hit him with 50,000 volts of electrical current and he ignited,” Kevin A. Luibrand, an attorney representing Jones’ family, said in response to the release of the video. “Instead of helping Jason, the police ran out the room, shut the door and let him burn.”
Although Jones was able to talk immediately following the incident, the flames had seared his lungs and the damage was so severe that they would quickly become unable to absorb enough oxygen for him to breathe on his own.
The attorney general’s Office of Special Investigation said the videos were released Friday under a directive that “redacted camera footage obtained by (the) office in the course of an OSI investigation be released to the public in order to increase transparency and strengthen public trust in these matters.”
The attorney general’s investigation is continuing.
“The release of this footage is not an expression of any opinion as to the guilt or innocence of any party in a criminal matter or any opinion as to how or whether any individual may be charged with a crime,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement.
The encounter between the police officers and Jones, a celebrated athlete at Catskill High School more than a decade ago, began when village police responded to a disturbance at The Avalon Lounge at the corner of Water and Church streets, which is in the heart of the village and about 400 feet from the police department.
Greene County District Attorney Joseph Stanzione previously told the Times Union that Jones left the bar and walked to the nearby police department, where he got into a confrontation with officers inside. Stanzione characterized the now-fatal encounter as “a terrible tragedy.”
But it’s unclear whether the confrontation with Jones, whom the officers were treating as an emotionally disturbed person, should have resulted in the officer firing the Taser. The video shows the three officers standing in a semi-circle around Jones and inching toward him, apparently because they were intending to take him into custody. The officer who fired the Taser was standing at least 6 feet away from Jones when he fired the weapon.
Catskill police Chief Dave Darling, a former State Police senior investigator, told the Times Union in November that he thought the officers “were afraid he was going to hurt himself, and that’s what started it.” At that time, Darling declined to respond to questions about what actions the officers took once Jones caught fire.
Stanzione’s office initially retained jurisdiction of the investigation because Jones remained on a ventilator, and the attorney general’s office did not have authority to intervene until Jones died.
Immediately following the incident, Luibrand had requested that the department preserve all evidence in the case, including audio and video recordings from street cameras and other devices, as well as any computer data from any Tasers that were used during the encounter.
The Times Union published stories roughly 13 years ago highlighting Jones’ standout athletic performances at Catskill High School, including on the track and basketball teams.
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