CATSKILL, N.Y. (WTEN) – New York Attorney General Letitia James on Friday released a chilling set of videos showing the moment police officers used a stun gun on an agitated man in their front lobby, after he had doused himself in hand sanitizer. The man then burst into flames, causing officers to temporarily leave the room.
The Attorney General’s Office said the footage is part of the investigation into the death of 29-year-old Jason Jones, who passed on Dec. 15 after the encounter with police on Oct. 30.
The AG’s Office said Jones walked into the Catskill Police Department, where he started a verbal altercation with three officers.
The video does not include audio; however, officers appear to try speaking to Jones for approximately 30 minutes as he wanders, distressed, in and out of the frame.
“Without hearing what was said, we can’t evaluate how effective de-escalation may have been in this case,” police training expert and former officer John Cooney of the Troy Police Department said.
Later in the video, Jones is seen taking off his shirt before picking up a large jug of hand sanitizer and spraying it over his neck, head and back. When an officer uses a stun gun in an attempt to subdue him, Jones bursts into flames.
Jones had been hospitalized since the incident until he was pronounced dead in December.
“The Taser is 50,000 volts of electricity. It’s well known, police are trained, not to use it in that circumstance. Jason predictably ignited as a result of that,” Kevin Luibrand, the lawyer representing the Jones family, said. “Every single day police come into contact with people having some form of mental health episode, whether it’s on the streets or at home, and there are ways to handle it. That’s not the way to handle it.”
Cooney, however, disagreed and said the earlier parts of the video, that showed the beginning of the encounter, indicated Jones was reaching higher and higher levels of aggravation.
“The use of force continuum starts at a point which is basically responsive to the amount of force and the amount of aggression that we are perceiving,” Cooney said. “From the first second to the last frame of the video, we see that he’s agitated, he’s very quick with his movements. One thing I noticed specifically was a constant clenching and unclenching of his fingers into fists.”
Cooney further said the situation is an unusual one not covered in traditional stun gun training.
“It’s fair to know that any flammable liquid in a close proximity, a Taser probably won’t be effective. In fact, it could be very harmful to the individual,” Cooney said. “But as a rule, we’re talking about gasoline, we’re talking about natural gas environments, we’re talking about environments that are fairly common. I think it’s fair to say in most Taser trainings, we don’t talk about sanitizer as that obvious flammable liquid.”
The full videos can be viewed on the attorney general’s website; however, the second video is extremely graphic and shows Jones on fire. Viewer discretion is advised. In light of this, WTEN has chosen only the air the video in parts, above.
Luibrand said one of the most distressing parts of the video for the Jones family is when officers can be seen running from Jason after he caught fire.
“Jason was unarmed. The police, rather than help him, ran out of the room, shut the door behind them, and let Jason burn,” Luibrand said.
However, Cooney disagreed.
“To immediately respond to jump on top of, to help roll over the individual, that’s a very individual decision and it’s not necessarily predicated by police procedure,” he said. “The officers left what they thought was a very hazardous situation. They did respond at some point. They reassessed and then responded.”
Greene County District Attorney Joseph Stanzione said his office was involved in the investigation into the case initially. He said is it the process for the Catskill Police Department to report incidents to the DA to be open and transparent.
As part of the investigation, the DA’s office was waiting on the status of Jones, with interest in interviewing him. When he died in December, the AG’s office got involved, per New York state law, regarding officer-involved deaths.
The release of the evidence follows NY Attorney General Letitia James’ directive that videos obtained by her office in the course of investigations conducted by the Office of Special Investigation (OSI) be released to the public in order to increase transparency. The AG’s said its choice to publicize the video is not an indication of the guilt or innocence of any party involved.
OSI looks into every incident where a police officer may have caused a person’s death.