Police Departments Keep Taser Policies Close


Team 4: Police Departments Keep Taser Policies Close
Pittsburgh, Allegheny County Cops Won’t Disclose Full Details Email Print
Comments (4)
Embed this VideoxEmailFacebookDiggTwitterYahoo BuzzRedditDelicious Link
The following is a transcript of a report by Team 4 investigator Jim Parsons that first aired Oct. 28, 2010, on WTAE Channel 4 Action News at 5 p.m.

A Team 4 investigation finds police departments in western Pennsylvania have something to hide. It’s their policies on how officers use electronic control devices, known as Tasers.

Video: Watch Jim’s Report

They don’t want you to know what’s in those policies, and critics say that secrecy could be resulting in cops Tasing for all the wrong reasons.

City of Pittsburgh taxpayers have dished out more than $200,000 to settle lawsuits with people who were Tased by police for refusing to obey a verbal command.

Experts say that shouldn’t happen. In fact, they put it in a report to local law enforcement last year. And yet we are still hearing complaints about it happening.

Police video: “All right, get her, cuff her, I got her under control, get the knife, get the knife.”

What you are seeing is a Taser saving a life. Instead of shooting this woman who refuses to drop a knife, police Tase her.

The same with this guy.

Police video: “Put it down! (Suspect screams)”

But not every Tasing by police is indisputably justified.

Damon Baker got Tased last month by a North Belle Vernon police officer. Why? His house was on fire, and so he sprayed an outside wall with a garden hose while waiting for firefighters to arrive. When a police officer ordered him to get back, he admits he refused to follow the command.

Damon Baker: “Yeah, for that I got Tased. For not stopping when ordered, I got Tased.”

Damon Baker: “I don’t feel that I was doing anything wrong. I was trying to protect my personal belongings, my pets.”

Steve Townsend: “These Tasers — it’s out of control. There’s no polic. There’s no guidelines. There’s no training.”

Attorney Steve Townsend represents Lisa Baker, who got Tased last April by Lower Burrell police inside her own house — in her own bed.

Her boyfriend was worried she might be suicidal, so he called 911. Officers testified that when they tried to convince her to leave with them for psychological counseling, she stood up in bed and started swinging her fists.

Townsend disputes that story.

Steve Townsend: “Ms. Baker was complying with police commands. She was speaking coherently to the EMTs and was voluntarily agreeing to do what the EMTs wanted her to do.”

Police charged Baker with felony aggravated assault, and they charged EMT Jody Rummell with obstruction for trying to stop officers from firing the Taser at Baker.

Jim Parsons: “Can I ask you some questions about use of the Taser? Was it proper use here? Officer, can you talk to me about why you guys decided to use a Taser on this woman?”

Officer John Marhefka: “You’d have to talk with the DA’s office about that.”

And then there was the Washington County man who is now suing state police.

Phillip Chappell was drunk in the back of a taxi after he attended a Steelers game. When a state trooper ordered him out, Chappell told him to be quiet, he was sleeping — twice. That’s when he allegedly got Tased.

Phillip Fabiano, Chappell’s attorney: “If the simple disrespect of a shush was enough to get Tasered, I think that is beyond the pale.”

State police declined to comment on the lawsuit.

David Harris: “Any time a person is simply resisting, just saying ‘No I won’t go,’ like the guy in the police car who’s asleep, it is inappropriate to use a Taser.”

David Harris wrote the book on the subject, literally. The Pitt law professor authored the Taser use report last year for a panel of experts that was convened by District Attorney Stephen Zappala.

Among the recommendations:

No Tasing for passive resistance

No Tasing of pregnant women, pre-teens, the elderly or people with mental or physical illness

No Tasing inside schools

A requirement that officers get annual Taser training

David Harris: “If not used properly, they’re dangerous. If not used with proper training, they’re dangerous. If not used with good supervision, they’re dangerous..”

The DA says he used the group’s work to try to get all police departments in the county on the same page.

Stephen Zappala: “We’ve issued — both prior and subsequent to the work of the committee through the chiefs of police — a model policy on the use of force. Not just on use of a Taser, but on use of force.”

But when Team 4 asked Zappala’s office for a copy of that model policy, we were turned down.

Harris says even he hasn’t seen a copy of that policy.

David Harris: “The ethic in this area is, ‘You don’t need to know that.’ That was pretty clearly what we found.”

Jim Parsons: “And that’s not that way around the rest of the country?”

David Harris: “No.”

While Pennsylvania police officers are required to train regularly for use of firearms and CPR, there is no specific requirement in the state code for Taser training.

Local departments we spoke with — including Pittsburgh police and the Allegheny County police and sheriff’s departments — all said officers do get Taser training and they all must abide by a strict Taser policy. But none of those departments would allow us to actually see the policies in their entirety.

Assistant Chief William Bochter, Pittsburgh Police: “We have a lot of confidence in our policy and in our training, but what we don’t want is people to know how to get around our policy.”

Vic Walczak, ACLU of Pennsylvania: “It is ludicrous for them to argue that this would compromise public safety.”

Pennsylvania’s ACLU is planning a court fight with police departments over gaining access to their use-of-force policies.

Vic Walczak: “This is all secrecy designed to insulate them from accountability, and that’s inappropriate in a democracy.”

The DA’s office says it sent Harris’ report to police departments, but there are no requirements that the recommendations be adopted.

Team 4 did ask several state legislators to watch our report. We’ll be interested to see if any of them think it’s time to require uniform Taser training of police.

Thomas Olson — Not Guilty — Eyewtiness sees what the police tell him to see!

Thomas Olson was acquitted of Robbery.  Steven C. Townsend, Mr. Olson’s attorney, said it took more time to for the court to order and have lunch delivered for the jury than it did for Mr. Olson’s peers to find Mr. Olson not guilty of Robbery, a first degree felony. Mr. Olson was facing the criminal charge as a result of an incident that occurred in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh in August of 2009. The charge could have put Mr. Olson in prison for up to 20 years, plus an additional 5 years for the use of a weapon.

A pizza delivery man was robbed by an unknown white male who was wielding a “sawed-off” baseball bat. Fortunately for the man, he was not injured and the robber got away with only $20. There were phone records which led police to the telephone booth where the phone call was made to order the pizza. After the incident, police along with the victim, reviewed the video surveillance of the telephone where the call was made. The jurors however, were never provided the video because the Commonwealth said that the manager of the gas station where the call was made, had no idea how to preserve it. On cross examination, the detectives admitted that one of the most critical pieces of evidence in a robbery is identification, yet they failed to take steps to preserve the video.

More shocking than not producing the video is the fact that the assailant was described as being 5’10”. The victim was absolutely positive of this characteristic because he had approximately 30 seconds to view him as well as 10 seconds face to face. That being said, Mr Olson who is only 5’5″, was chosen from a photo array almost 2 months after the incident. At Mr. Olson’s preliminary hearing both the victim and the police detective testified that the victim identified Mr. Olson in the array. However, upon a careful reading of the transcript, it was apparent that this wasn’t the first photo array that was shown to the victim.

Mr. Olson’s attorney, Steve Townsend, filed 2 separate motions requesting the Commonwealth provide the mandatory discovery. Although this information should have been provided upon the first informal request, Mr. Townsend had to argue on 2 occasions to receive it. Why was it so important? It was learned that the victim was shown Mr. Olson’s picture in another photo array 4 days after the incident — the victim failed to identify Mr. Olson. There was a reason for his lack of identification, Mr. Olson was innocent….Mr Olson was 5 inches shorter….Mr. Olson had 6 alibi witnesses, which the police failed to interview.

Shame on the police for trying to withhold this information. Shame on the Commonwealth for trying to prosecute an innocent man even though they had this information for over a year. Fortunately for Mr. Olson, his attorney didn’t waive his preliminary hearing, and didn’t accept the Commonwealth’s repeated response that it had provided all exculpatory discovery.