Crime

Nampa officers cleared in man’s death after arrest, Taser strikes

Body camera captures Firkins tasing incident (Warning: graphic content)

Anthony Firkins Jr. lost his job due to drug use. He quit counseling and taking his antidepressant. The Nampa police officers who collided with him early one morning in April 2013 didn’t know any of that — they only knew that a man driving reckles
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Anthony Firkins Jr. lost his job due to drug use. He quit counseling and taking his antidepressant. The Nampa police officers who collided with him early one morning in April 2013 didn’t know any of that — they only knew that a man driving reckles

“Show me your hands!” a Nampa police officer screamed early one morning in April 2013 as Anthony L. Firkins Jr. hid underneath a flatbed semitrailer parked inside a fenced recycling yard. Seconds later, a second officer yelled rapidly, “Taser! Taser! Taser!”

Officer Aaron Coleman fired his Taser at Firkins, 33, lying on his back in the dark after fleeing from a traffic stop on April 19. One probe struck Firkins in the shoe; the second one missed.

Seconds later, Officer Travis Poore fired his Taser, striking Firkins in the chest and stomach. It and another Taser shot by Cpl. Jamie Burns into Firkins’ left side appeared to have little effect, according to police reports and interviews with the officers.

“I remember watching this guy strain and rip the Taser probes out right after he was shot,” Officer Eric Duke told investigators. “I knew at that point it wasn’t going to work and we had to find a different means, so I reached in and grabbed his left arm.”

Officers eventually dragged Firkins out from underneath the trailer and took him into custody. Later, while handcuffed and with his legs restrained, Firkins lost consciousness. He was never revived.

Details released

The circumstances behind Firkins’ arrest and his death were never publicly explained. Nampa police said only that Firkins was “noncompliant” after they found him hiding following a pursuit.

Requests for related records were denied during a long investigation and, later, the possibility of a lawsuit by Firkins’ family. But recently, the Idaho Attorney General’s Office and Canyon County released more than 500 pages of documents pertaining to Firkins’ death. The Attorney General’s Office also allowed a reporter to view video footage shot by officers’ body cameras and listen to audio both from the scene and from later interviews with the seven officers involved.

Firkins was shot three times by stun guns that are meant to deliver a muscle-disrupting shock. Three other times, officers pressed their Tasers directly to Firkins’ body to inflict pain. He was also struck with a baton in the shoulder and by an officer’s fist to get Firkins to bring his arm out from under his body.

It started with a chase

Officers first encountered Firkins after a man twice reported hearing a woman screaming in the 200 block of Hudson Avenue, just off Nampa-Caldwell Boulevard near the middle of town. The caller told a dispatcher the woman was screaming something in Spanish that he could not understand. Authorities never identified the woman, and it’s not clear what prompted the call.

Responding at 3:14 a.m., Duke saw a black GMC pickup headed toward him, swerving in its lane and driving without headlights. Firkins was driving the truck and refused to stop; he led officers on a 5-mile chase before crashing into a fence outside Pacific Steel & Recycling, 2515 E. Comstock Ave.

Firkins ignored commands to show officers his hands. Instead, he got out, jumped into the back of the pickup and grabbed the fence.

After a warning, Coleman aimed his X26 Taser at Firkins and pulled the trigger. But the gun malfunctioned and did not fire. Firkins climbed over the fence into Pacific Steel’s yard.

Officers followed and soon found Firkins lying on his back under the flatbed. He dug into his pants, worrying officers who thought he might be reaching for a gun or other weapon, Poore told investigators afterward.

‘I can’t breath. I’m going to die’

After Firkins was handcuffed, one officer told him to take deep breaths and at least two officers told him to relax as Firkins kicked at police while on the ground. Eventually he was placed in leg restraints.

Starting 90 seconds after being handcuffed, Firkins began to moan softly: “Help.” Officers several times checked on Firkins and confirmed he was still breathing. At one point, Duke assured Firkins, “If you’re talking, you’re breathing.”

Firkins was last heard about eight minutes after he was handcuffed. “I can’t breathe. I’m going to die,” he said.

Five minutes later, an officer checked on Firkins and found him unconscious. Another officer said he had just checked on him.

“He was breathing,” the second officer said. “His breathing was shallow 20 seconds earlier and I took my hand off him.”

He ain’t breathing.

A Nampa police officer upon finding Anthony Firkins Jr. unconscious

Officers removed the handcuffs and leg restraints and began CPR. Medics arrived at the scene about the same time and took over. Taken to Saint Alphonsus Nampa Health Plaza, Firkins was declared dead at 5:15 a.m.

Police cleared of wrongdoing

The Attorney General’s Office and the Canyon County Critical Incident Task Force found that the police officers involved in subduing and apprehending Firkins did nothing wrong, according to the investigative reports.

“Based upon our review ... we do not believe that any criminal charges should be filed or could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The officers’ actions were lawful and, according to the autopsy report, do not appear to have contributed to Mr. Firkins’ death,” wrote Paul Panther, a deputy attorney general who heads the Criminal Law Division.

Firkins’ autopsy found he died after experiencing a condition known as “excited delirium.” A toxic amount of methamphetamine in his system contributed to his death.

Excited delirium is marked by a sudden onset of agitation, aggression, distress and death, typically cardiac arrest. It almost always takes place during a struggle with police. Skeptics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say it’s just an easy way to explain away a death at the hands of police.

Nampa Mayor Bob Henry, who took office in 2014, said while the city is saddened by any death, he is satisfied that Nampa police officers handled the case appropriately.

The reports from the Idaho Attorney General’s Office and Canyon County Sheriff’s Office are very clear that the Nampa Police Department’s actions were lawful, and according to the autopsy report, Mr. Firkins’ death was related to his apparent high level of illegal drugs in his system.

Nampa Mayor Bob Henry

Family questions use of force

Julie Firkins, Anthony Firkins’ widow, said the Nampa police officers “got away with murder.” And his father, Anthony Firkins Sr., said he doesn’t understand why officers fired their stun guns at his son so many times.

“He was already underneath the trailer, he wasn’t going nowhere. He was surrounded and couldn’t get away. There wasn’t any reason to continue that excessive force until they killed him,” Firkins Sr. said.

Nampa Police Department policy says officers should consider other means of restraint if a first Taser application appears ineffective. That did not happen in this case.

“The issuance of the Taser is not a basis for officers to stand back and forgo hands-on tactics such as restraint and control techniques which would be reasonable force. Cuffing under power and moving in to take control instead of repeated trigger pulls is an area of concern that should be emphasized during training,” reads a written discussion that appeared in a daily bulletin issued to officers.

The policy also says officers should avoid shooting a suspect in the chest, as Poore did.

A 2012 report by the American Heart Association said electrical shocks from Tasers in some cases can set off irregular heart rhythms, leading to cardiac arrest. Taser International recommends that officers aim for the back, pelvic muscles or thigh.

My husband was a good man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Julie Firkins, widow of Anthony Firkins Jr.

Previous legal troubles

Anthony Firkins Jr.’s criminal history includes at least one fight with law enforcement. In 2007, he choked a corrections officer and kicked another in the stomach at the Mini-Cassia Criminal Justice Center in Burley. He later pleaded guilty to assault on an officer.

Other convictions include injury to a child, attempted grand theft, possession of a controlled substance and aggravated robbery (in Wyoming).

Firkins had battled a drug addiction, and before the events of April 2013, had begun using methamphetamine again following the death of a close family member, said his mother, Donna Dodge, according to police. After showing up high for work as a truck driver with Anderson Trucking in Burley, he was fired.

Firkins maintained a home in Caldwell, while his wife lived in Heyburn, about 2 1/2 hours east. At the same time, Firkins had a girlfriend who also lived in Caldwell. That woman told police she picked Firkins up about 4 p.m. April 18 and suspected him and a friend of using meth before she arrived.

The girlfriend said she dropped Firkins off at his home at 10:30 p.m. The last contact she had with him was after midnight, when he texted her: “I love you.” Three hours later, police were chasing him.

Lawsuit never followed tort claims

Julie Firkins, who filed for bankruptcy in 2014, said she has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to look into her husband’s death. U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy Olson said she has not seen anything on the case.

The Firkins family also filed tort claims in October 2013 against the city of Nampa, Canyon County, the Canyon County Ambulance District and Canyon County Paramedics. The claims are a precursor to filing a lawsuit in state court, but no lawsuit was ever filed.

Julie Firkins told the Statesman that lawyers representing the city of Nampa told her about the text message her husband sent to his girlfriend and said they would use that information in court to embarrass her.

Nampa city spokeswoman Vickie Holbrook said it would “not be appropriate” to comment on that issue.

Also, Julie Firkins said, she wouldn’t have been likely to prevail in a lawsuit anyway.

“If the police officers who are responsible for my husband’s death didn’t lose their jobs or get jail,” she said, “how can I ever win a lawsuit in the state of Idaho?”

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell

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