The mother of Troy A. Hodge has claimed police overuse of a Taser killed her son, while police sources say early autopsy findings strongly suggest the stun gun did not shock him at all.
Hodge, 39, of Lockport, died at Eastern Niagara Hospital about 1:15 a.m. Monday, after a struggle with four police officers.
An autopsy was performed Monday at the Erie County Medical Examiner's Office, but a cause of death has yet to be released.
Speaking in a television interview, Hodge's mother Fatima Z. Hodge suggested police used excessive force on her son, and that their actions caused his death.
“They slam him on the ground, facedown. I’m out there screaming and hollering, please, ya’ll don’t hurt my son," Fatima Hodge said. "They body-slam him down again. Then they have that gun — the Taser. It broke on my child they did it so many times."
Fatima Hodge dialed 911 about 11:43 p.m. Sunday when Troy Hodge showed up at her door behaving "incoherently," Police Chief Steven Preisch said.
Preisch said Troy Hodge's behavior appeared to be a result of his use — or possibly misuse — of medication, though he declined to say which type of drugs police believe he had ingested.
A police officer encountered Troy Hodge in the driveway of 217 Park Ave. Troy Hodge told the officer he was going to go inside to get a gun, prompting police to physically subdue him, Preisch said.
Because Fatima Hodge refused to allow a police search of her home, police had not determined whether Troy Hodge actually had access to a gun as of press time.
Police also recovered a knife at the scene. Preisch said some witnesses say Troy Hodge was brandishing the knife during the encounter, while other witnesses say it remained in his pocket.
"It depends on which version you hear," Preisch said.
Thomas Burton, an attorney representing the four officers involved, said there is no question Troy Hodge was brandishing an open knife and threatening officers.
“They used everything they could to get the knife out of his hand, and it was a mighty undertaking to do that," Burton said.
Burton also pointed out that, had Troy Hodge been brandishing the knife, the officers would have been justified under state law in using deadly physical force — in other words, shooting Troy Hodge with their firearms, rather than the stun gun.
“These cops tried to resolve this without deadly force, to their credit," Burton said.
Three Lockport police officers and four Niagara County Sheriff's deputies promptly arrived to assist the responding officer, and several became involved in the altercation.
At some point during the struggle, an officer deployed a Taser, a stun gun that fires two barbed darts that embed in one's skin and deliver a high-voltage, low amperage electrical shock, intended to subdue unruly or dangerous persons without causing serious damage.
Burton said it's currently unclear whether the Taser was used before or after officers disarmed Troy Hodge (if he was in fact brandishing the knife).
Preisch said only one officer deployed the Taser. Still, all four officers' Tasers were collected as evidence, because the stun guns log each time they are used.
"We did secure all of those. It’s part of the investigation," Preisch said.
Both Burton and Preisch said the autopsy results found no dart marks on Troy Hodge's body, indicating that the Taser's barbs did not penetrate his clothing. Troy Hodge was wearing three layers — a shirt, undershirt and either a jacket or sweater — at the time, Preisch added.
“I certainly don’t think it even made a puncture of the skin, which would have basically rendered it ineffective," Preisch said.
"It is possible that the Taser probes, if they were successful in penetrating the clothing, could have gotten held up in the clothing,” he added.
Tasers are designed to be able to penetrate up to two inches of an individual's clothing or flesh. But Burton said multiple factors, such as the clothing material, the angle from which the Taser is fired, or the individual moving, can affect a Taser's effectiveness.
"The proof’s in the pudding. If they did penetrate (Troy Hodge's clothing), with the examination they’ve done on the decedent, they would have found dart-marks on him," Burton said. "I don’t think the darts connected with him.”
Preisch also said LPD's Tasers are designed to only deliver shocks in five-second increments.
Sometime during or after the struggle, Troy Hodge collapsed. Twin City Ambulance and Lockport Fire Department responded and brought Troy Hodge to ENH, where he was later declared dead. Preisch said officers applied chest compressions while waiting for the ambulance and continued to do chest compressions inside the ambulance as it traveled to ENH.
“He took his last breath out on my pavement," Fatima Hodge said in the TV interview.
Fatima Hodge disputed the police account of the incident, saying her son never threatened officers.
"I’m saying my son didn’t try to hurt no police. He was trying to get up and help his mother, and save his mother, because he knew he wasn’t himself," she said. "And it doesn't take five, or four, or three to do what they did to my child. No need to take that, they need to talk.”
Fatima Hodge shared photos showing several bloody contusions and bruises on the sides of her son's head.
Troy Hodge's supporters also circulated a cell phone video of the incident, shot from the opposite side of Park Avenue, on social media Tuesday. In the video, Troy Hodge can be heard shouting, “Mom, don’t let them kill me. Don’t let them kill me.”
Neither Troy Hodge nor the officers are visible in the video, which shows the front of 217 Park Ave. and a parked police car with its emergency lights flashing.
Other voices in the video can be heard saying, "Let go of the knife," followed by a sound that apparently was a shot from the Taser.
Rafael Gomez, an attorney representing the Hodge family, confirmed the video's authenticity. He declined to comment on the cause of Troy Hodge's death, saying the family would await the medical examiner's conclusion to comment.
“We don’t know ultimately what happened," Gomez said. "We’re going to await the medical examiner’s determination.”
While Tasers are typically seen as an alternative to lethal force, some reports have uncovered evidence that they could have contributed to hundreds of deaths. An investigation published in August 2017 by Reuters found 1,005 incidents in the U.S. in which a person died after being shocked by a stun gun.
The news agency noted other factors contributed to the deaths in most of the incidents. Of the 712 incidents in which Reuters obtained autopsy findings, the Taser was cited as a cause or contributing factor in the death in 153.
"Most of the other autopsies cited a combination of heart and medical conditions, drug use and various forms of trauma," Reuters reported.
Both the Niagara County District Attorney and New York Attorney General are investigating the incident. An attorney general spokesperson said the office has yet to determine whether Troy Hodge was armed during the encounter; if it finds he was, the office is not required to continue its investigation.
A 2015 executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo required the attorney general to investigate all deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of police.
Meanwhile, Preisch said LPD has formed a review team to investigate officers' actions, including whether they followed department policies during the encounter.
The four officers involved — Lt. David Pytlik and officers Daniel Barrancotta, Patricia Burdick and Marissa Bonito — have all been placed on administrative leave pending the investigation.
Preisch said he's hopeful the autopsy and investigation results will be released shortly, pointing out the heightened attention drawn lately to civilians deaths in encounters with police, particularly involving African-American men.
“I’m hoping because of the sensitivity of this that this case would be put to the forefront of some of these people’s work piles," Preisch said, referring to the medical examiner investigation and toxicology tests. "I wish I had them yesterday.”