March 25, 2008
Critical questions remain two months after driver's death.
There are two critical questions requiring timely answers when a citizen dies following the use of force by law enforcement: Was the officer's use of force necessary? And was the response proportional to the threat posed?
More than two months after the disturbing death of Mark Backlund, a young Fridley man shot with a Taser by the Minnesota State Patrol, neither his family nor the public has the information needed to weigh what happened that January evening rush hour along Interstate Hwy. 694 in New Brighton.
Backlund, 29, was on his way to the airport to pick up his parents when he crashed his vehicle into a central median barrier. A responding trooper shot him with a Taser -- a device that jolts people into submission. He later died at a nearby hospital.
Nationwide, 290 people have died after Taser use. The deaths have been attributed to underlying causes, but lingering safety concerns are generating debate about the growing number of officers using the devices.
Given that backdrop, the Minnesota State Patrol and the agency investigating the death -- the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) -- should be working as quickly and transparently as possible to reassure the public about troopers' Taser decision-making. Instead, officials have released the barest of information and not responded to Star Tribune reporter Jim Adams' open-records law requests for critical details, such as what Backlund may have done to prompt Taser use.
In the days after the death, the State Patrol would say only that Backlund was "uncooperative.'' Two weeks ago, BCA Superintendant Tim O'Malley elaborated only slightly, saying Backlund had refused requests from a trooper intended to protect drivers on a busy freeway.
Not even Backlund's family knows what happened. His father, Gordon Backlund, has asked to see video footage shot at the scene, but said this week he has been told no. "... Why would you Taze someone in the driver's seat? That's what I'd like to find out,'' Gordon Backlund said.
O'Malley has said the agency wants to err on the side of thoroughness at the expense of time; more specific findings will be released when an autopsy is complete, though additional review by the Ramsey County attorney's office could cause further delay. Backlund said he'll be patient.
Ultimately, community trust is the foundation on which law enforcement rests. The BCA has collected physical evidence, interviewed witnesses and reviewed video from the scene. Releasing information in a more timely, organized fashion would start addressing the troubling questions Backlund's death raises. And it would help the public know what to expect -- and how to behave -- when a patrol car's flashing lights appear in the rear-view mirror.