Nearly 10 months have passed since 61-year-old Tony Wilson was tased five times in less than 60 seconds by a National City police officer and eventually died as a result.
Now, as the family seeks answers about the death of their loved one, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office continues its investigation into whether the officer should be tried in the man’s death.
At the same time, San Diego’s branch of the NAACP says Wilson’s death is on the level with George Floyd’s death and more needs to be done to ensure that in-custody deaths are prevented and more focus is placed on de-escalation in policing.
NBC 7 Investigates broke the story of Wilson's death after obtaining body-camera footage of the Sept. 29, 2019, incident involving National City police officers and Tony Wilson.
Experts told NBC 7 that police agencies in San Diego County and throughout the country lack clear training policies when it comes to the use of force -- and Tasers, in particular.
In regards to Wilson’s death, police were called to the location shortly after midnight when residents said a man, later identified as Wilson, was banging on the front door of a house on East 8th Street.
The callers told police dispatchers that the man was unarmed and appeared to be under the influence of drugs.
Moments later, Officer Jonathan Taylor arrived at the scene. As seen in body-camera footage from the incident, Taylor approached Wilson with his gun drawn and demanded that Wilson get on his hands and knees. Wilson complied. As he did so, Taylor, along with two other officers, approached and attempted to handcuff Wilson. Just under 20 seconds after the initial contact, Taylor discharges his Taser into Wilson’s side after Wilson failed to place his arms behind his back. In the following 60 seconds, Taylor discharged his Taser into Wilson from a few feet away four additional times.
Sixteen days later, Wilson lost consciousness and was taken to a hospital, where he was placed on life support and eventually died.
Wilson’s death is now under investigation by the National City Police Department’s internal affairs unit, as well as the San Diego County District Attorney’s office.
During the past 20 years, more and more police departments across the country have turned to Tasers as a non-lethal alternative in policing. And with more frequent use has come an increase in the number of injuries and deaths as a result of the stun guns.
According to a 2017 report by Reuters, Tasers have played a role in the deaths of more than 1,000 people since 2000.
Sid Heal, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy and expert on nonlethal use of force, told NBC 7 Investigates that for the most part, the Taser is a safe and reliable tool for police officers.
The problem, said Heal, is there is no standard universal training policy on the use of Tasers and other “nonlethals,” leaving police departments on their own to implement policies and train officers.
“There is no universal training and no standard nomenclature with this,” Heal said. “There are no standards for training and there's not even a lot of statistics.”
Added Heal: “Officers don't have any device, including a Taser, which is size small fits all. We don't have any nonlethal options that don't come with a major trade-off, but the Taser is probably one of the most effective and safest devices we have available to us.”
But that trade-off, Heal said, is real and is seen with recent evidence showing repeated discharges in a single subject leading to dire consequences.
“The vast majority are second-order effects, meaning that the person has some underlying health condition, particularly a central nervous system stimulant," Heal said. "But what happens is, is that we do know that the likelihood of suffering serious injury increases fairly dramatically after three or more discharges.”
A spokesperson for Axon Enterprise, the manufacturer of the Taser, agrees that each agency is required to provide training on the use of Tasers and that each incident is dependent upon the circumstances.
“Although Axon provides recommendations for the safe and effective use of Taser conducted energy weapons, it is up to each agency to determine its own Taser training requirements, policies and use standards in accordance with applicable law,” said the company representative.
Because the use of force is dependent upon the totality of circumstances in each situation, the spokesperson said that “there is no bright-line rule governing the use of [Tasers], including the number of times it can be used.”
In the case of Wilson’s death, Taylor used his Taser five times in the span of a minute.
Doing so appears contradictory to the National City Police Department’s training documents. Among them is a test that officers are required to complete before the department issues them a Taser.
Meanwhile, the San Diego Chapter of the NAACP is also seeking answers.
“How sad that [National City Police officers] did not have de-escalation policies and procedures in place then,” reads a statement from an NAACP spokesperson. “This would have been a perfect time to use de-escalation. Mr. Wilson was obeying the officers; had they slowed down, had they given him a chance, he might be alive today.”
The NAACP called the force used against Wilson “unnecessary and excessive, by any reasonable standard.”
Added the spokesperson, “The stress was simply too much for Mr. Wilson, and after that all-too-familiar, ‘I can’t breathe,’ and, ‘Help me,’ he fell silent forever.”
NAACP members said that instead of using force, officers should have called on San Diego’s Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) to try to talk Wilson down, since he appeared to be suffering from a psychotic episode the night of the incident.
“As for National City, their police chief makes much of their newfound interest in de-escalation," the NAACP spokesperson said. "To him we say, 'We are watching you.' National City is the second oldest police department in the county, and they have a history of interactions with unarmed people in mental crises ending in death. Let’s see if anything changes, or if you are just paying lip service to try to deflect our attention.”
But the NAACP is not the only group that has raised questions about the use of force against Wilson.
An expert on policing and discrimination who reviewed the video of the incident told NBC 7 that Officer Taylor deviated from the original purpose of the Taser.
“The whole point of Tasers is that they enable you to nonlethally incapacitate someone from a distance,” said Jack Glaser, a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley who specializes in police tactics and discrimination in policing. “Tasers are not meant to be used to torture someone into compliance. The close-range use would be for defensive purposes only.”
A spokesperson for the National City Police Department did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. The story will be updated when it does.