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FBI to review video in Millvale Taser probe

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By Adam Smeltz
Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

The FBI said Wednesday it will review a video that shows Millvale police using a stun gun on a handcuffed man.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. also is looking at the video recorded in September and sent anonymously this week to attorney David Shrager and the Tribune-Review.

The 52-second clip shows a man Shrager identified as Thomas Jason Smith, 27, of Millvale seated on a floor, shirtless and handcuffed behind his back. Smith knocks his head against furniture before an officer drags him away by the arms. The video shows officers laughing and talking with Smith.

When Smith begins pulling away from the officer and back toward the furniture, a second officer fires the stun gun on him. The footage then breaks off. It does not show Smith threatening anyone.

Shrager said he doesn't know if a longer recording exists or if Smith was injured.

“Certainly, tasing someone who is not actively resisting is not appropriate,” Shrager said. He cited “laughter and name-calling and a general attitude of unprofessionalism” in the video.

The Millvale borough manager, police chief and council president did not return calls. Neither did Nichole Murphy, the officer identified by Shrager and in court documents as having subdued Smith. Mayor Vincent F. Cinski referred an inquiry to borough solicitor John Cambest, who did not return a call.

Smith's family is weighing a lawsuit against Millvale police, Shrager said. Smith's mother said her son has bipolar disorder and “a host of other mental problems,” according to Shrager, who said he was speaking on the family's behalf. Smith is in the Allegheny County Jail.

“People with disabilities need to be treated with compassion and dignity,” Shrager said.

“Why would you use that much force against someone who's got mental problems and is having issues, as opposed to dealing with him in a humanitarian way?” said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina. “There may be some reason we don't know. There may be some other threat I'm not aware of that would justify it.”

Police departments maintain their own policies for Taser use.

“There's nothing specific about not using the Taser when someone is in handcuffs,” said Trooper Adam Reed, a spokesman for state police in Harrisburg, discussing his department's policy. “They stress the totality of circumstances.”

Police in Western Pennsylvania have faced scrutiny for use of Tasers in high-profile cases.

The August 2008 death of Andre DeMon “Dre” Thomas, 37, prompted a county task force on Taser use. Swissvale police struggled with Thomas and used a Taser on him before he died. No department in Allegheny County is allowed to use Tasers without a policy governing their use and without training, Zappala has said.

Former Rankin police Chief Darryl Briston died in December after fleeing police near The Meadows Racetrack and Casino. State police say a trooper used a Taser on Briston's leg for two seconds, before Briston went into cardiac arrest a short time later.

Chad Cekas, 27, died in August 2007 after Pittsburgh police used a Taser on him on the Parkway West near the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Police said he was combative and endangering motorists.

Officers are justified to use Tasers in self-defense or if a suspect is trying to flee from a serious offense, said David Wright, a use-of-force instructor for Pittsburgh police.

Reed described a similar policy for troopers. State police also may use a Taser to prevent injury, he said.

“I would say just because you're in handcuffs — you're still capable of being combative and injuring somebody,” Reed said.

Millvale police arrested Smith on Sept. 21 and charged him with disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, resisting arrest and aggravated harassment by a prisoner. He was in a fight and tried to flee while waiting for medics, according to a criminal complaint.

Murphy wrote Smith turned violent in a jail cell, hit his head off a wall and tried to spit on another officer.

“This male attempted to attack officers, kicking me in the chest, arm area,” she wrote. “Male was then shot with the Taser.”

The video does not show Smith kicking Murphy, though the recording may be incomplete. Zappala has said he wants to be sure he has a full, unedited version.

“There may be cases when an individual could be quite capable of using his legs and feet and resistance,” said Greensburg police Chief Walter Lyons. “Officers have in the past been injured by suspects who have kicked them, using their legs and feet basically as weapons.”

Staff writers Margaret Harding and Rick Wills contributed to this report. Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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