Staff and Wire Reports

EL RENO, Oklahoma -- Police officers are being sued for using a Taser last December to subdue a disabled grandmother, then 86, in her apartment bed.

Her grandson pleaded with officers, "Don't taze my Granny!" according to the lawsuit.

Lona M. Varner, now 87, and her grandson, Lonnie D. Tinsley, last week sued the city of El Reno, officer Thomas Duran, officer Frank Tinga, officer Joseph Sandberg and other unknown police officers.

Varner and Tinsley claim in the federal lawsuit in Oklahoma City that their civil rights were violated. They also claim the city has failed to adequately train and discipline its police officers.

A city attorney, Roger Rinehart, said the city would have no comment. Assistant Police Chief Kevin Wilkerson said, "With the federal lawsuit, we can't make any comment on it right now."

Police have admitted using a Taser to incapacitate the suicidal woman Dec. 22. Officer Duran wrote in a police report that she pulled a kitchen knife from under her pillow and threatened to kill him. "I tried talking to Varner and calm her down but nothing would work," he reported.

"The police say in their report that she was threatening…Hard to imagine an 86-year-old in bed being threatening," said Brian Dell, the attorney representing Varner and her grandson

The officer reported that she took "a more aggressive posture on the bed" when other officers arrived. He reported she raised the knife above her head and said, "If you come any closer, you're getting the knife." He reported he feared she would injure someone.

Scott Wood, a former Tulsa police officer who is now a use of force expert, believes due to the threats, officers were justified.

"A police officer has that in his training, he knows what it's that person's intent is and what the expressed intent that counts, not whether they're 50 or 80 or 100," Woods said. "Unfortunate situation, yes...An improper use of force, no."

Police went to the apartment Dec. 22 after her grandson called 911 for a paramedic to check on her. "She says ... her life is over. She wants to end it. ... She's taken some medicine. I don't know what she's taken," Tinsley said in the 911 call. "I can't get her to tell me what she took. ... She's kind of upset and everything else."

Dell said police acted inappropriately and could have killed her with the Taser shock. He said she was never charged with a violation of law.

He said Varner has had a series of health problems, including strokes. She uses an oxygen machine to help her breathing and can barely walk by herself. She uses an electric cart to get around and can see out of only one eye.

He said she was in a hospital-type bed when she was shocked.

"Even if you reasonably believe someone's going to commit suicide, do you Taser them?" the attorney asked.

He said police ripped the skin of her arms when they grabbed her. "She's an old lady," he said. "Her skin is like tissue paper."

The lawsuit said she was taken first to an El Reno hospital where she was treated for the burns to her chest and the torn flesh on her arms. The lawsuit said she was moved on Dec. 23 to the psychiatric ward of an Oklahoma City hospital at the direction of the El Reno police. She was held in the psychiatric ward for six days.

Dell said she had $30,000 in medical bills from the police conduct.

The lawsuit claims that as many as 10 police officers pushed their way into the apartment after the grandson called 911. The police first stepped on her oxygen hose "until she began to suffer oxygen deprivation," and then police fired a Taser at her, striking her with only one prong, according to the lawsuit. The suit makes no mention of a knife.

"The police then fired a second Taser, striking her to the right and left of the midline of her upper chest and applied high voltage, causing burns to her chest, extreme pain and to pass out," attorneys alleged in the lawsuit. "The police then grabbed Ms. Varner by her forearms and jerked hands together, causing her soft flesh to tear and bleed on her bed; they then handcuffed her."

The grandson also was handcuffed and placed in a police car when he protested police attempts to Taser his grandmother, the attorneys alleged. He was freed to go with his grandmother in an ambulance to the El Reno hospital.

In his report, Duran wrote he deployed his Taser first but it did not affect her because one of the two prongs went into a blanket. He wrote, "I told Officer Sandberg who was next to me that my Taser was not working. Officer Sandberg deployed his Taser with both prongs making contact. The Taser rendered Varner incapable of any further aggressive action. Officers were able to remove the knife from Varner's hand and secure it safely."