Lawyer says Millvale disciplined officer in Taser video; investigations continue
By Adam Smeltz
Published: Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, 3:00 p.m.
Millvale police disciplined an officer who shot a handcuffed man with a stun gun, and the department opened an internal investigation this week when video of the September incident emerged, borough solicitor Jack Cambest said on Thursday.
Cambest would not say how Officer Nichole Murphy was disciplined as a result of the Sept. 21 incident, but said she was not suspended or fired. He said Murphy underwent additional training.
“There's not much more the borough can do in that regard,” Cambest said, though officials are evaluating other officers.
The internal investigation, led by police Chief Derek Miller, is separate from a review that the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office and the FBI are conducting. County and federal officials confirmed this week they have taken up the matter.
Murphy reported in a criminal complaint that she used the Taser on Thomas Jason Smith, 27, of Millvale because he turned violent in police custody. Her report shows he was stunned again with a Taser after trying to attack officers, though Murphy did not specify who used the device.
A video leaked to the Tribune-Review and attorney David Shrager this week shows Smith sitting on a floor shirtless with his hands cuffed behind his back when Murphy shocks him. It does not show Smith attacking police, but it's not clear whether the recording is edited.
Murphy has not returned calls for comment. Smith is in Allegheny County Jail.
“He's happy that his story is being shared, and he's just looking for justice,” Shrager said.
Cambest said the 52-second video, which shows a handcuffed Smith banging his head on an office cubicle post to some smiles and laughter by emergency responders, contradicts information that Miller received after the incident.
“There obviously is a different version of what occurred (from) our employees,” Cambest said. “And it may be that the video has been altered.”
Millvale police arrested Smith on Sept. 21 on charges of disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, resisting arrest and aggravated harassment by a prisoner. He was released from jail in November and arrested again the same month on drug and weapons charges.
FBI spokeswoman Kelly Kochamba said the investigation with the District Attorney's Office is looking at possible civil-rights violations and whether a deeper investigation should begin. The borough is reviewing whether police violated policies and how the video reached the media “without going through the proper channels in the police department,” Cambest said.
“We understand the video was taken by an employee of the police department,” though borough officials don't know why, he said. “We do believe it may not have been leaked by the individual who took the video.”
District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala has said departments in the county must have a Taser policy and appropriate training in order to use the stun guns. Cambest said he could not share Millvale's Taser rules, and Miller could not be reached.
Generally, police guidelines allow officers to use Tasers to prevent injury, law-enforcement experts said. Pittsburgh officers are justified to use them for self-defense or if a suspect tries to escape from a serious offense, city police instructor David Wright said.
He said Pittsburgh began using Tasers on a widespread basis about a decade ago.
“We've seen a great reduction in the number of officers injured and the number of actors injured because of the implementation,” Wright said.
Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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