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
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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.