Too much force?

Witnesses decry police takedown of man at Costco

Robert Trausch says police reacted with excessive force during the takedown of a man at Costco on Dec. 23.

Robert Trausch says police reacted with excessive force during the takedown of a man at Costco on Dec. 23.

Photo By Vic Cantu

Two days before Christmas Chico police officers were called to subdue a man at Costco, which they did in front of dozens of holiday shoppers, including two who say the police over-reacted with excessive force. The police say the force was justified based on the man’s behavior.

“I suffer from PTSD, and this has totally set me off,” said witness Tula Bennett. “My holidays are ruined.”

The incident occurred on a rainy mid-morning Sunday during the holiday rush at the main entrance to Costco on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Pkwy. Costco employees detained Dale Caldrer, 32, who was reportedly causing a disturbance and acting erratically. After the incident Caldrer admitted to officers he’d taken methamphetamine earlier in the day, said Chico police Sgt. Curtis Prosise.

Caldrer is an Oroville resident with an extensive arrest record for domestic violence, forgery, burglary, being under the influence, evading an officer, battery and hit and run. Several police officers apparently had trouble controlling Caldrer. Bennett said she saw him in a hogtied position facedown with his arms handcuffed behind him and his legs bound and crossed. She said his mouth was full of blood and that he screamed the police were breaking his arms.

“There were approximately six officers and two Costco employees on him,” said Bennett. She kept hearing a stun gun go off and saw them apply it once to his mid-back.

“At one point the poor guy looked me dead in the eye and asked me, ‘Please help me, lady,’ but I couldn’t move,” she said. “I was frozen. I’m surprised he’s not dead.”

Bennett complained to the officers that what they were doing was excessive and wrong, but said she was rebuffed.

Bennett has a long history of working on the side of law enforcement. She was a cook supervisor in California prisons for 27 years, including 12 years at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City.

“I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of inmates taken down, and this was definitely excessive use of force,” she said, adding that she was outraged that such tactics were used in full view of Costco shoppers and their children.

Bennett was comforted at the scene by Robert Trausch, who also witnessed the incident. He is a board member of the Chico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which according to its website works to defend individual rights and liberties.

Trausch was at Costco Christmas shopping with his son when he came upon the commotion. He said Caldrer was uncooperative with the four to six officers who were holding him down. He also said that Caldrer was hogtied and appeared mentally out of it or on drugs. From a distance of about 12 feet, Trausch said he saw officers use a stun gun on Caldrer’s neck, wait a few minutes, then stun him again, up to as many as five times.

Chico Police Sgt. Scott Zuschin said the officers were actually firing the stun gun next to the suspect’s head and not touching his body with it. Though he was not at the scene, Zuschin explained that when someone is unruly because of a nervous-system stimulant, as Caldrer appeared to be, the person has a heightened awareness of sights and sounds. A stun gun “spark test” fired near the face tends to have a calming effect, he said. The spark test was also used to keep Caldrer from biting, spitting or fighting when he was released to Enloe Medical Center due to his drugged condition.

“Often police work is very ugly and can appear different to the public,” Zuschin said.

For his part, Trausch said he’s sure the stun gun was applied several times directly to Caldrer’s neck. “I would testify to it in court if needed,” he said.

Zuschin said that Bennett’s observation of the stun gun being applied to Caldrer’s back may be accurate, but that he didn’t have access to the full police report by press time. Costco employees refused comment on the story.

Trausch said Tasers and stun guns have become “police tools of convenience instead of necessity.” He said he wants to meet with Chico Police Chief Kirk Trostle to share his feelings, give him community feedback and generate better rapport.

“My brother is a cop,” Trausch said. “We need cops, but they need training and the tools to do the best job possible.”

Trausch said he also believes that someone with a long history of heavy drug use may be mentally ill and needs help, not punishment.

“We have cut off funding for the mentally ill,” he said. “Society’s only solution for them is to lock them up or let them live under a bridge.”

Zuschin empathizes with Trausch’s feelings. One day after this incident Zuschin was involved in the tasing of a man on Mangrove Avenue who he believes may have been mentally ill.

“We’re seeing far too many violent, mentally ill people lately,” Zuschin said. “I’m not sure if it’s because they’ve been released from jail early or we just don’t have the resources for them.”