Pennsylvania Cop Who Tased Compliant African-American Man Won’t Be Suspended

A police officer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania who tased an apparently compliant African-American man will not be disciplined by his department, and probably won't face charges either.

A Lancaster, Pennsylvania police officer who administered a Taser shot to an apparent suspect even though the African-American man appeared from available video to be complying with the officer’s requests won’t be suspended, which likely means he also won’t face charges for his actions:

A Pennsylvania police officer who was recorded using a Taser on an unarmed black man in a widely shared video will not be fired or suspended, officials said.

Danene Sorace, the mayor of Lancaster, Pa., acknowledged at a news conference on Friday that some members of the community would find the decision “extremely upsetting.”

“So who is accountable?” she asked. “I am. I am accountable, as mayor, for existing policies, procedures, training, hiring practices and more. It’s on me.”

The episode, which took place on June 28, remains under investigation by the police and the prosecutor’s office. Preliminary findings showed that the officer complied with use of force and Taser policies, which allow an officer to use force when a suspect fails to respond to multiple verbal commands, Ms. Sorace said.

Video of the episode has been viewed more than 2.8 million times on Facebook and more than 6.2 million times on Twitter.

The footage showed the officer, Philip Bernot, repeatedly asking Sean D. Williams to straighten his legs as Mr. Williams was sitting on a curb.

“Legs straight out or you’re getting Tased,” Officer Bernot said.

Mr. Williams started to straighten his legs. Another person can be heard yelling, “Put your legs straight out and cross them now.”

Mr. Williams started to bend his knees, bringing the soles of his feet together, and Officer Bernot, who was standing behind Mr. Williams, used the stun gun on him.

Hundreds of people attended a rally the next day to protest the officer’s actions.

Officer Bernot could not be reached for comment on Saturday, but the Lancaster City Bureau of Police described in a statement what happened in the moments before.

Officers stopped Mr. Williams after receiving a 911 call about a man with a baseball bat, the police said. When one of the officers arrived, there was no bat to be found, but the officer saw three people telling Mr. Williams to get away from them, the statement said.

The officer told Mr. Williams “several times” to sit down and he refused to comply, the police said. Instead, he kept asking a woman in the group to give back his Social Security card.

A couple of minutes later, Officer Bernot arrived and instructed Mr. Williams to sit on the curb, the police said. The group of people later told the police that Mr. Williams had exhibited “erratic behavior” and “wanted to fight.”

The police said Mr. Williams was found to have an outstanding criminal warrant for possession of a controlled substance and public drunkenness. He was arraigned and released on $5,000 bail.

One of Mr. Williams’s lawyers, Brian R. Mildenberg, said on Saturday that it was “outrageous” Officer Bernot would not be “removed from the streets” pending an investigation, and that the commands Mr. Williams received from the officers were inconsistent.

“On behalf of my client, I reiterate our respectful demand that this police officer be suspended pending this investigation,” Mr. Mildenberg said. “He was completely peaceful and compliant and there was absolutely no reason to use violence upon his person.”

While it’s still possible that Officer Bernot could end up being charged with a crime in connection with this incident, the fact that he’s not being suspended or apparently disciplined for his actions is probably a strong indication that he’s similarly unlikely to face charges for what happened on June 28th. A good part of that, of course, is that as a general rule police officers receive a certain benefit of the doubt when it comes to the use of force, whether deadly or not, in the performance of their job. A good part of this is due to the fact that the use of force is an inevitable part of a police officer’s job and that there are situations where the use of force in the line of duty is going to be considered justified as long as it was reasonable under the circumstances. In this case, while the video clearly shows that Williams was generally being compliant with Bernot’s instructions, the fact that he didn’t comply fast enough and had previously been resisting apprehension, the argument would be that his failure to immediately comply, combined with the circumstances of his apprehension, made the use of the Taser justifiable under the circumstances. While I don’t necessarily agree with this interpretation of the law and the facts, it’s likely that a prosecutor would view things this way and that, even if the officer were charged, it would be difficult for a Judge or jury to convict the police officer involved in the incident. Absent additional evidence, I would be surprised to see this case result in criminal charges.

Williams has already filed a civil lawsuit against the city of Lancaster and Officer Bernot alleging violations of his civil rights and the use of excessive force. In addition to damages, the suit also asks for a Federal Court to put in place an order requiring reforms to police procedures and training. That last goal would be easier to achieve, of course, if the Department of Justice were to get involved in the case. Based on what the DoJ has said in the eighteen months since Trump became President, though, it seems fairly clear that cases such as this, or those involving other excessive use of force claims against police officers are likely to be swept under the rug rather than fully investigated.

And people wonder why “Black Lives Matter” is a thing, or why N.F.L. players kneel during the National Anthem.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Race and Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Modulo Myself says:

    The police do have a right to be wary of compliance. The problem is that the police propaganda makes it sound like every officer whether in Lancaster or in East New York might not come back alive. And that’s crazy–it’s more dangerous to be a sanitation worker than a cop. What the police do face are normal people who happen to be drunk, high, mentally ill, or angry. That’s it. This guy might be an asshole but he’s not out to kill cops. If you’re a police officer and you have to taser somebody who has a record of public drunkenness and drug possession, you are terrible at your job. You have to be very violent to pose a threat to a police officer. That police are given the right to treat everybody as a potential mass murderer is insane.

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  2. teve tory says:

    @Modulo Myself: If policing were done properly, it would be more dangerous to be a cop than to be a rancher, logger, taxi-driver, etc. The fact that it isn’t is because cops are permitted to blast first and ask questions later.

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  3. al Ameda says:

    One of Mr. Williams’s lawyers, Brian R. Mildenberg, said on Saturday that it was “outrageous” Officer Bernot would not be “removed from the streets” pending an investigation, and that the commands Mr. Williams received from the officers were inconsistent.

    “On behalf of my client, I reiterate our respectful demand that this police officer be suspended pending this investigation,” Mr. Mildenberg said. “He was completely peaceful and compliant and there was absolutely no reason to use violence upon his person.”

    How does any police officer or law enforcement official look at that tape and conclude that an escalation of force to the level of tasing was justified? Yes, I’ve heard the argument ‘if you weren’t there you can’t judge.’ I saw enough. Is it any wonder that a significant percentage of people in Black communities see police departments as an occupying force?

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  4. teve tory says:

    Remember that woman who called the cops on the black 12-year-old for mowing part of her lawn? She just called the cops on him again.

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  5. Modulo Myself says:

    @teve tory:

    I’m not so sure. Intentionally setting out to kill a police officer is pretty serious. Intentionally setting out to kill anybody is serious. It’s way different than being belligerent, even if violence comes out belligerence.

    I wish I could remember where I found this, but I remember a footnote in some book talking about the work of a cop-turned-sociologist who came to the conclusion that the dangerous party aren’t actually dangerous unless they are committing a crime because they know how to set the police at ease. Whereas it’s the inexperienced people who might be dabbling in dealing or who are black and walking down the street that get it from the cops.

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  6. teve tory says:

    ‘if you weren’t there you can’t judge.’

    That’s a grade-A bullshit argument.

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  7. teve tory says:

    @teve tory:

    I’m not so sure. Intentionally setting out to kill a police officer is pretty serious. Intentionally setting out to kill anybody is serious. It’s way different than being belligerent, even if violence comes out belligerence.

    I completely fail to understand your point.

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  8. Modulo Myself says:

    @teve tory:

    My point is that they’re killing a lot of people who are at worst jerks or petty criminals, but who are certainly not going to kill them. The police do not make this distinction. Their jobs would not be more dangerous if they weren’t allowed to tase or shoot people because of a perceived threat. It’s a perk for the police officers, and it’s part of the militarization of America.

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  9. teve tory says:

    okay that is a little clearer. IDK if it’s done deliberately or as a consequence of the irrational fears cops promote amongst themselves, but it’s certainly a problem. Cop orgs act to coverup how often it happens, so it’s surprisingly hard to get good data, but some groups estimate that over 50,000 people a year in the US are killed by cops.

    https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/05/the-57375-years-of-life-lost-to-police-violence/559835/

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  10. Modulo Myself says:

    @teve tory:

    Another pet theory is that the license to mistreat the police have is part of a larger class battle. The police officers on the street (at least in big cities) are basically one-step above the people they’re harassing. Constant harassment produces not only funding (like with Ferguson) but it ends up with people having criminal records (especially young men) for doing the same thing the cops were doing when they were young. Having a criminal record makes it incredibly to get a state job, which allows for the cops (who always protect their own) to have more access to better wages.

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  11. Stormy Dragon says:

    “So who is accountable?” she asked. “I am. I am accountable, as mayor, for existing policies, procedures, training, hiring practices and more. It’s on me.”

    So she’s resigning? Or is this that bullshit sort of government accountability where a politician really means that no one is actually accountable but they’re going to pretend someones is so they can get indignant next time it’s brought up?

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  12. An Interested Party says:

    Here’s hoping that the lawyers for Williams are able to get him a lot of money from the city of Lancaster…maybe that might make the mayor think twice about allowing cops to get away with such outrageous behavior…

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  13. mstory says:

    @teve tory: I don’t think the article you linked to says over 50000 people were killed.
    It suggests that 57375 years of potential future life were lost as a result of the 1146 police involved deaths in 2015.
    The article struggles to make a point.

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  14. Hal_10000 says:

    This makes official what I have contended for a while: stun guns are not intended to be a non-lethal alternative to guns; they are now a way of brutally enforcing compliance.

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  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Hal_10000: They are billy clubs that don’t leave bruises, cracked skulls, or busted knee caps.

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  16. teve tory says:

    @mstory: oh yeah i very clearly screwed that up. Looking at other sources now the number seems more on the order of magnitude of 1,000 per year. I blame 6 hours of playing poker against randos for messing up my brain.

    (Why would 2 people at a table raise and reraise every hand before the flop? It was maddening AF)

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  17. Paul L. says:

    Maybe they will be charged if Williams wins his lawsuit like what happened with Sgt. Raymond Corll.

    Lancaster PA protects their cops.
    https://lancasteronline.com/news/local/lancaster-mayor-perjury-conviction-diminishes-sgt-raymond-corll-s-usefulness/article_89c6590c-1597-11e7-ba8d-4bbd063ccfb6.html

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  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Well, I was going to note that what you observed has become the test of her administration, but since you’ve already pointed that out, I’ll go on to my other observation.

    And people wonder why “Black Lives Matter” is a thing, or why N.F.L. players kneel during the National Anthem.

    Good point. And the next time Warren and the boys do their Glenn-Beck-all-lives-should-matter Gish Gallop, we will need to consider why we keep giving these wastes of communal oxygen the benefit of the doubt in the name of the First Amendment.

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  19. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @teve tory: One of the sites I play at has a player with the screen name “Fake Money” and the motto “Fake money real choices.” I think that explains what’s going on sometimes. On the other hand, I won $400,000 clear off playing a quarter mil stake at that kind of a table yesterday, so my view is more forgiving today. Six hours is too long, though.

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  20. george says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    And people wonder why “Black Lives Matter” is a thing, or why N.F.L. players kneel during the National Anthem.

    What I wonder is why white folks aren’t doing the same. Google Daniel Shaver, or Andrew Finch – unarmed white guys killed by cops (and in not even remotely threatening the cops), cops got off free (not even charged in Finch’s case). American cops kill at ten times (to a hundred times, depending upon the country chosen) the rate of any other developed nation – and that includes killing whites to the tune of 500 a year. Even racist whites should be up in arms about that – and yet most whites don’t seem to give a damn.

    The problem isn’t tasers, its the whole attitude of police against anyone who isn’t a cop.

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  21. teve tory says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Maybe it’s a scheme to just push everybody out and collect the Blinds? IDK. It was fucking annoying. The only way to deal* is to play really tight, fold everything that isn’t a (high) pocket pair, and when you flop onto a triple try to bankrupt them to make them go away.

    *(that I know of, I’m not a poker whiz)

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  22. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    That appears to be the strategy among professional players when I watch matches on the World Poker Tour network. It’s not the same game I used to play with my buddies in grad school and in Korea, for sure.

    (And now, we return you to our actual topic 😉 .) @ george: Have no control over police shootings at all, but I have come to understand the police ambushings of the 60’s in places like Oakland and my home town, Seattle. I’m uncomfortable that I am getting it–and even more so that I’m pretty devoid of sympathy about it, except to send relatively meaningless “thoughts and prayers” to the loved ones who are left with a relatively crappy survivor’s benefit and a used only one time American flag. But that’s where I’ve been left…

    Poor compensation, but on the other hand, too often just deserts, too.

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  23. Stormy Dragon says:

    @teve tory:

    (Why would 2 people at a table raise and reraise every hand before the flop? It was maddening AF)

    A hand that’s worth playing is worth betting on. Calling just encourages marginal hands to hang in and fish for a lucky card.

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  24. teve tory says:

    yeah but that’s not what they were doing. They were maxxing out the cost of seeing the flop, every hand, whether they had pocket rockets or 2-8 off-suit.

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  25. Stormy Dragon says:

    @teve tory:

    Did these two particular players seem to know each other prior to the game?

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  26. teve tory says:

    PokerStars has a lot of players and i am not there frequently enough to know that. It probly would shed some light on the situation.

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  27. Stormy Dragon says:

    @teve tory:

    They could just be really bad players that have some sort of personal grudge and have decided raising indicates superiority over the other whether it makes sense to raise or not

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  28. teve tory says:

    They were really bad players. They lost ~10k in play money in 30 mins on 100/200 tables. Probly Trumpers 😛

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  29. teve tory says:

    Make Ante Gigantic Again!

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  30. Mister Bluster says:

    @teve tory:..Make Ante Gigantic Again!

    I’ll see you a truncheon and raise you a tase!

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