Grandmother seeks answers after Taser use against 12-year-old Native American girl
Details scarce on Wagner incident depicted in social media video
K’s Qwik Stop in Wagner. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
WAGNER — A grandmother wants answers after a video showing a Wagner police officer using a Taser on her 12-year-old granddaughter circulated online.
The Wagner Police Department has offered no details on the situation in the video, which was shared at 5:45 a.m. on Sept. 20 and has now been viewed more than 14,000 times on Facebook.
As the video begins, Eli Kuhlman and another officer are seen struggling with the Native American girl at K’s Qwik Stop, with each holding one of her arms.
Kuhlman steps back and fires his Taser at the child. Another female who’d been standing between the officers during the struggle catches the girl as she falls forward.
As the officers put her in handcuffs, she screams, “What the f— is wrong with you guys! I’m a f—ing 12-year-old!”
The girl’s grandmother, Roderica Rouse, said the officers appeared during a fight the girl said was started by older girls who’d jumped her.
“When I saw that, I was so shocked,” said Rouse. “She’s just a little girl. I just cried.”
Her granddaughter was taken to the hospital in Wagner and released shortly thereafter, Rouse said. She wants to know why the officer felt it necessary to use a Taser on the girl.
“My main concern is to know why he did that,” Rouse said.
It’s unclear from the video how the 12-year-old might have been involved in the altercation. The video doesn’t offer any insight into the situation that played out before filming began.
Wagner officials have offered little insight.
Wagner City Attorney Beau Barrett told South Dakota Searchlight that the city did not forward the case to the state Division of Criminal Investigation for review, a common practice in use-of-force incidents, but one that only commences with a request from a local department.
The city is in the process of conducting an internal investigation into the incident, Barrett said.
“We still don’t have everything we need to complete our investigation,” he said.
Barrett said he could not offer further details.
Wagner Police Chief Damon Griffith declined to comment on the situation, declining to release the date, time or nature of the call. Charles Mix County State’s Attorney Steve Cotton also declined to offer details on the outcome of the altercation because it involves a juvenile.
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Libby Skarin, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota, said in a statement that the use of Tasers in situations involving young children is concerning.
Tasers fire electrodes that attach to a person’s clothing or skin, typically rendering them temporarily immobile.
There are no statistics on their use gathered at a statewide level, but there have been other situations in which the devices have been used in situations involving young children. Ten years ago, for example, the Pierre Police Department defended the use of the device against an 8-year-old the police chief said had been threatening to harm herself.
“All too often, Tasers are used preemptively against citizens who do not present an imminent safety threat,” Skarin said. “There are far too many instances in which officers have impulsively deployed Tasers against children, pregnant women and the mentally ill, even though the victims posed no real danger to either the officers or anyone else. It is incumbent upon the police department to examine an officer’s use of force against a child and to ensure that vulnerable kids are safe from unwarranted and shocking uses of force.”
It’s not the first time Officer Kuhlman’s behavior has drawn the attention of the public. The first incident took place in 2016, a few months after his provisional hire date with the Wagner department but before he was certified as a South Dakota law enforcement officer. In that situation, the Yankton Sioux Tribe decried his actions toward a 64-year-old man who’d been speeding to see his ailing mother at a nursing home in Wagner. Kuhlman had used a stun gun to incapacitate the man and pulled him to the ground.
The man, Raymond Cournoyer, filed a federal lawsuit against Kuhlman and the department over the incident, which left Cournoyer bloodied and kept him from seeing his mother before she died.
The case was later dismissed by U.S. District Judge Roberto Lange, who noted that officers have qualified immunity against excessive force claims in most situations. Lange noted that Cournoyer had not mentioned anything about the reason he’d been speeding and ignoring officer commands.
It’s unclear from the video if Kuhlman was aware of the age of the girl he encountered at the Wagner convenience store late last month before she announced her age.
More broadly, Charles Mix County, which includes Wagner, has seen several conflicts between its Native American population and law enforcement. Recently, the death of Robert “Berta” Enoch in the Charles Mix County Jail drew a hearing on officer misconduct before the Law Enforcement Standards and Training Commission.
Enoch was hiding out in a drug house on tribal land in the days leading up to his death. He was taken into custody in Lake Andes on a Monday morning and died within hours.
Enoch’s friends and family say the death, attributed to an overdose, could have been prevented had sheriff’s deputies responded to the signs of overdose-related distress he’d exhibited while incarcerated in the jail in Lake Andes. The sheriff’s deputy was cleared of misconduct on the grounds he hadn’t been trained in how to recognize those signs.
Charles Mix County includes the lands of the Yankton Sioux Tribe. Calls and emails to tribal leadership on the Taser incident have not been returned.
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