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Interview: Eyewitness to Dog-Walking Taser Incident at GGNRA

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View of Rancho Corral de Tierra (GGNRA)

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From the Chronicle yesterday:

A Montara man walking two lapdogs off leash was hit with an electric-shock gun by a National Park Service ranger after allegedly giving a false name and trying to walk away, authorities said Monday.

The park ranger encountered Gary Hesterberg with his two small dogs Sunday afternoon at Rancho Corral de Tierra, which was recently incorporated into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, said Howard Levitt, a spokesman for the park service. Full story

KQED's Amy Standen today interviewed John Bartlett, an eyewitness to the incident. Here's an edited transcript:

What happened?

Well I think I came toward the end of what happened. It was getting to a point where he was getting a little irritable. From what I've heard since, she hadn't given him a ticket. He said something about 'are you going to arrest me,' something like that, and the next thing I heard was a shot and a scream of agony from him as he fell on his back. He seemed to be out for two or three minutes.

Unconscious?

He didn't respond at all to what she was saying to him, 'get over on your stomach,' because she wanted to handcuff him. She finally did handcuff him.

Then about at that time, some other law enforcement people came. At some point he managed to talk to us, there were three of us watching, me and two bystanders who had been there before me. He managed to shout to us, 'please take my dogs,' he didn't want  them to go with the enforcement people. I moved fowrard to do that, and the ranger said, 'stand back,' so i backed off; I knew she was armed.

And then when these other enforcement people came, one of them who was a woman came over with the dogs and handed them to the other two bystanders, a young couple. And that is where I made my exit.

You're sort of shaking your head like this rattled you...

It did rattle me. I've never seen anything like it. I'm 77 years old, never had such an emotional reaction to something. I didn't know if the guy was dying. For a leash on a dog...

The park people say the reason she tasered him is because he was resisting apprehension. She kept asking him to stop and he kept not stopping. Do you have any sense of that?

He was not moving in her direction at all, he was moving away.

Did it strike you as an excessive use of force?

Extremely. Yeah.

Another eyewitness is heard from in this Half Moon Bay Review account:

Witnesses say Hesterberg was told to wait while the ranger communicated on her radio. He repeatedly asked her why she was detaining him and if he was being cited. After a few minutes, he announced he was leaving and began to walk away, and the ranger grabbed him by the arm and ordered him again to stay put.

“We felt like he wasn’t doing anything,” observed Michelle Babcock, who witnessed the event while walking that afternoon. “The ranger was very rude — you could tell (the dog walker) wanted to be on his way, but she kept saying no.”

Hesterberg motioned to leave a second time, and the ranger unholstered her Taser and warned him she would use it. He asked her not to shoot, saying he had a heart condition that could be fatal if he was shocked. That’s when he turned his back to the ranger, apparently to walk away.

Perhaps the larger story here is the proposed GGNRA dog policy plan, which was the subject of much growling on all sides last year. GGNRA is exempt from the National Park Service policy that requires dogs to be walked on leashes, but it is now considering, as part of a long history of attempts at modifying the policy, expanding the number of leash-only areas. Dog owners are adamantly opposed to this, but bird watchers and other recreational constituencies support the change.

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When Rancho Corral de Tierra was incorporated into GGNRA, a leash-only policy was instituted, which brings the undeveloped parcel of land in line with other national parks but makes it an anomaly within GGNRA. Previously, leashes were not required at Rancho Corral de Tierra, though park officials say they may eventually allow off-leash walking in some areas.

The taser incident is not going to help the GGNRA's already poor image among dog walkers. From the Half Moon Bay Review:

Within a matter of hours, the Taser incident generated cries of foul play among the close-knit dog-walking community in Montara. GGNRA took control of the Rancho Corral property in December, and some dog advocates fear the agency will fully prohibit dog walking.

“There is total outrage about this. Everyone thinks this is a total excessive use of force,” said Bill Bechtell, who runs the Montara Dog Blog and email group. “Tasers should only be used in self-defense. This guy was walking away and got Tasered in the back.”

Bechtell pointed out that the Rancho Corral property had no signs posted to warn dog walkers to use leashes. He wondered if every dog owner walking through the park will now be accosted by a ranger.

GGNRA officials say they meant to have rangers out at Rancho Corral mainly to educate the public on the new dog-leash rules. GGNRA has been trying to cultivate goodwill among the local community, Levitt said, but the Taser incident will probably take time to overcome.

GGNRA is currently looking over the copious public comments to its dog proposal. The plan, whatever it ends up being, will not be implemented until at least the end of 2013.

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