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Family files claim after Globe officers taser woman with mental illness

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Posted at 11:07 AM, Mar 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-03 19:33:00-05

GLOBE, AZ — A woman, who suffers from serious mental illness, has filed a $5-million legal claim against the City of Globe after officers cornered her in her bedroom, tasered her, and arrested her.

Memory Burns, 35, committed no crime on the night police entered her house without a warrant in September 2020.

“They roughed me up in my house,” Burns said.

Wednesday, Burns filed a notice of claim, a precursor to a lawsuit against the City of Globe, the police department, the chief, and the officers involved. She seeks a $5-million settlement. Her claim includes accusations of negligence, assault and battery, false arrest, false imprisonment, and civil rights violations.

Burns was well-known to local police agencies. In Gila County, she had nearly 100 documented contacts, many related to her mental illness.

Neighbors, who were unfamiliar with her condition, called 911 to report arguing coming from Burns’ apartment.

“They could hear what they believe to be a man's voice and a woman's voice and banging,” Globe Police Chief Dale Walters said. “It sounded like a violent domestic going on.”

Burns, who has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder according to her family, was alone in the apartment. She had quieted down before police arrived and would not answer the door.

Two rookie officers and a new sergeant had responded to the call. While other Globe officers had responded to her apartment earlier in the month, these officers had no prior contact with her.

Police body-worn cameras captured the entire incident.

“If we come in, you are going to be arrested for obstruction,” one officer said.

A state trooper who lives in the apartment complex told the two rookie officers about Burns’ condition. He explained she had, “one of those orders for mental, mental health.”

Nobody told the sergeant, who after 20 minutes outside, decided the circumstances were exigent enough to force their way into the apartment.

Inside, with guns drawn, the officers found Burns standing in the corner of her dark bedroom. She did not immediately respond to a command to put her hand on her head.

“Drop her,” the sergeant yelled.

“You can only interpret it one way,” said Robert Campos, Burns’ lawyer. “He's ordering his officers to shoot Memory.”

“I think his intent was to take her down to the ground,” Chief Walters said. “It was a poor choice of words and a very heated exchange.”

“It’s against the law,” Burns said to the officers who had entered her apartment without her permission. “It’s obstruction of justice.”

That’s when the sergeant tasered Burns. She falls to the ground.

“Oh my God!” Burns yelled. “You are killing me.”

“I'm going to tell you right now, we missed the mark,” said Chief Walters. He conducted an internal investigation of the incident.

While he defended the initial entry into the apartment due to “exigent” circumstances, Chief Walters also found policy violations and other deficiencies. He notes the inexperience of the officers, the need for more training, a lack of communication and de-escalation on the scene, and the use of force.

“That tasering was outside of our policy,” Chief Walters said.

The rookie officers received additional counseling and training, and the sergeant, Jeffrey Overton, who fired the taser, was suspended for 20 hours for unnecessary use of force. Burns’ family thinks the department’s response is not enough.

“If you're mentally ill or if you're the astronaut, you (police) cannot go into somebody's house,” said Lewis Williams, Burns’ dad. “You cannot pull guns down a hallway screaming there. You cannot take them and knock them to the ground.”

“We have people who suffer from treatable mental illness, and they deserve justice,” Campos said.

When asked about concerns that Burns’ civil rights were violated, Chief Walters said, “The answer to your question will clearly be answered throughout the process of the civil litigation.”

As for better policing people with mental illness, Chief Walters said he wants Gila County dispatchers to start flagging addresses and including police histories, known threats, or mental health concerns when needed.

He said he is building relationships with Horizon and Community Bridges, the main mental health providers in Globe. He noted that officers sometimes will take someone to jail on minor charges, so they are in a secure facility, instead of waiting hours to meet up with a crisis worker for a mental health pickup.

“What needs to happen is, you know, the mental health community itself, working closer with law enforcement, so we have a better understanding on both sides,” Chief Walters said.

After tasering and handcuffing Burns, officers took her to a local hospital for a medical exam and discussed mental health care options. She was not taken to jail that night and was not charged with a crime.

Memory Burns has spent time in the Gila County Jail. In early 2020, she was held for more than 70 days despite a judge's order for her to be released to her mental health provider for evaluation. ABC15 will air that story Thursday at 6 p.m.

Got a news tip? Email ABC15 Investigator Melissa Blasius at Melissa.Blasius@abc15.com and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.