Washington County DA 'not going to prejudge' ex-police chief case

| Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, 12:03 a.m.

Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone said Monday he is waiting for state police to complete their investigation into the death of former Rankin police Chief Darryll Briston before he reviews the case.

“I'm not going to prejudge anything,” Vittone said.

A trooper used a Taser on Briston, 49, of North Braddock before he died Saturday night at Canonsburg General Hospital. Police who arrested Briston said he punched the male companion of his estranged wife inside the Meadows Racetrack & Casino and ran. Police and security chased him and, when he refused to show his hands to be cuffed, the trooper “drive stunned” the Taser into Briston's upper right leg for two seconds.

Police said the drive stun feature administers a localized shock — different than a typical Taser shock that overrides the body's central nervous system.

“We believe that Taser technology protects life and if called upon we are prepared to help the investigation of this unfortunate incident,” Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser International, wrote in an email.

Washington County Coroner Timothy Warco did not rule on the cause and manner of death pending the outcome of the investigation.

State police spokesman Trooper Adam Reed would not provide a copy of the agency's policy on stun guns but said they are appropriate for use in an arrest when someone is resisting.

“A big part of it is taking into account the totality of the circumstances, if it's preventing a crime or preventing a suicide, or if someone is taking an aggressive stance,” Reed said.

University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris served on a task force convened by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. that in 2009 concluded Tasers are useful and largely safe weapons for police if they have been adequately trained and provided clear guidelines on when to use them.

“It's hard to know (if the usage was appropriate) without more information,” Harris said. “My first take is that they used less force than they might have.”

Zappala assembled the task force upon the death of Andre Thomas, 37, on Aug. 5, 2008. Thomas died about an hour after Swissvale police officers used Tasers on him. Medical Examiner Dr. Karl Williams ruled that Thomas died of “agitated delirium” and that the Taser did not contribute to his death.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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