Video Captures Pennsylvania Cop Tasing Unarmed, Compliant African-American Man

Another incident involving what clearly seems to be the inappropriate use of force against an African-American man.

A newly released video shows a police officer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania using a Taser on an unarmed African-American male who had his back turned and was generally complying with the officer’s instructions:

“Legs straight out or you’re getting tased,” the police officer can be heard saying on video, talking to an unarmed black man sitting on a curb.

The man appears to begin following the officer’s directions, then folds his legs up again. The officer fires his stun gun. The man writhes in pain, then is handcuffed by officers while lying on his stomach.

That encounter, captured by a bystander on a cellphone video Thursday morning in Lancaster, Pa., and then widely shared after being posted to Facebook, quickly led to a public outcry, including from the town’s mayor, who said an investigation would be conducted.

The video shows Officer Philip Bernot of the Lancaster City Police Bureau repeatedly asking the man, Sean D. Williams, 27, to straighten his legs as Mr. Williams is sitting on a curb.

According to a report from the Police Bureau, officers stopped Mr. Williams when responding to a 911 call about a man with a baseball bat.

The video of the episode, which happened on Thursday morning, began circulating widely on social media, with many commenters saying the officer who fired the Taser appeared overzealous and decrying the use of a stun gun against a black man who appeared to be compliant.

“He wasn’t combative at the time, he wasn’t running, he was curling his legs up,” said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina who studies the use of force. “He wasn’t even resisting. There was no justification for any force.”

Danene Sorace, Lancaster’s mayor, posted a video of herself commenting about the encounter to the city’s Facebook page on Thursday evening. She said that she was upset by what she had seen and that there was an investigation underway.

Matthew Johnson, Ms. Sorace’s chief of staff, said Friday that there is an “ongoing internal police investigation” into the encounter that will determine whether department policies were violated. Mr. Johnson did not say when that investigation was expected to be completed.

The Lancaster branch of the N.A.A.C.P. said on Thursday in a statement also posted to Facebook that it would investigate the encounter as well, noting that videos do not give a “full understanding” of such events and that “a full understanding requires a full investigation.”

“This event highlights the need for strengthening the accountability and trust which necessarily characterizes a productive relationship between communities and law enforcement,” the Lancaster N.A.A.C.P. said in the statement.

Here’s the video:

While I suppose it’s fortunate that the officer involved in this incident used a Taser rather than a gun, which obviously would have resulted in the suspect involved in this incident being seriously injured if not killed, that hardly is a reason to ignore what happened here or to dismiss it. Regardless of the weapon or technique that was used, the improper use of force is still improper even if there isn’t any injury involved. Additionally, a group called the Center for Police Equity found in a 2016 study that African-Americans are more likely than others to be subjected to the use of force by police, whether that means deadly force like the use of a gun or a choke hold as in the case of Eric Garner or something seemingly less severe like a Taser.

This also isn’t the first instance of a Taser being used against an African-American male under suspicious circumstances. Perhaps the most notable case came earlier this year when video footage showed Milwaukee police officers using such a device on Sterling Brown, a player for the N.B.A.’s Milwaukee Bucks. The circumstances of that case were not dissimilar to this one in that the video showed Brown was being compliant with officers and was not resisting them in any respect. While no charges appear to have resulted from that incident, three officers were suspended, one was discipline, and the Mayor of Milwaukee issued a public apology to Brown. In a 2009 incident in the San Francisco Bay area, a transit officer shot and killed Oscar Grant, an African-American man, while Grant was lying facedown on a train platform. The officer stated that the killing was an accident in that he had mistaken his pistol for his Taser, but he ended up being convicted of involuntary manslaughter.  A year earlier in 2008, a New York City police officer fired a Taser on an emotionally disturbed man on a building ledge, which caused the man to fall to his death. This use of a Taser was contrary to department guidelines in place at the time. Finally, while its generally believed that Tasers are non-lethal, a recent investigation found that roughly 1,000 people had died after being stunned by a Taser since 2000, with the Taser being a contributing factor in the death in at least 150 of those cases.

Taken in this context, the incident in Lancaster becomes even more disturbing. As in the case out of Milwaukee, which involved a player for the hometown N.B.A. franchise, the suspect in this case clearly seems to be complying with the requests of the officer. In any case, he was facing away from the officer and was not in any position to run away or cause danger to himself, the officer, or anyone else in the area at the time. At that point, there doesn’t seem to me to be any rational reason why he needed to be subjected to the seeming torture of having 50,000 volts of electricity pumped into his body simply because he apparently wasn’t moving his legs fast enough for the officer’s satisfaction. Obviously, there may be more to this incident than the video reveals but at the very least it needs to be investigated and, if the facts warrant, charged for what clearly seems to be an inappropriate and unjustified use of force.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Race and Politics, US 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. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Our police are broken. Not all of them, and not wholly, but there is some fundamental human part of all too many of them getting snapped. The idea that any noncompliance of their commands justifies the use of overwhelming force has become commonplace in all too many of them. Especially when the target of their ire is of a darker complexion.

    I remember the days when cops would take the time to talk to people, to interact with them. That just doesn’t seem to happen anymore.




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  2. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: While I think “the days when cops would take the time to talk to people” may be a narrower phenomenon than I once believed—certainly for African-Americans—we’ve definitely moved into the “Bad Boys” era of policing. While “community policing” and building relations with the citizenry have been en vogue for a generation, the ethos on the ground seems to be that the streets are a war zone and it’s the cops versus us.




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  3. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    How many people in favor of the reason that officers were disciplined and suspended and that Brown was offered an apology is because he playz bazzetball for the Bucks? The 60s are returning, and they won’t be pretty THIS time either. Fork!




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  4. James Pearce says:

    @James Joyner:

    the ethos on the ground seems to be that the streets are a war zone and it’s the cops versus us.

    Great point, but the Permit Patty type stuff makes me think it’s us versus us (or white versus black) with the police as the weapon.




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  5. TM01 says:

    As Doug says, “there may be more to this incident than the video reveals ,” so, playing devil’s advocate here, suppose the officer doesn’t fire the taser, goes to cuff the guy, and a fight ensures as he resists arrest? Is he unarmed? Is he big enough to cause harm to the officers? Do we end up with another Eric Garner-ish situation as police try to subdue him?




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  6. Lynn says:

    @TM01: “so, playing devil’s advocate here”

    I know … just to be on the safe side, lets tase everyone.




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  7. de stijl says:

    @TM01:

    Suppose Williams transformed into a Decipticon…

    Or Williams might have cast a Weakness to Fire spell, duration 5 seconds, on target stacked with a Fire spell, 18 damage / second, duration 5 seconds, on target unless Officer Bernot tased him in the back.

    We can never know what shenanigans Williams might have engaged in because Bernot shut off those potential timelines by tasing a compliant, sitting suspect in the back.




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  8. Mikey says:

    @James Pearce:

    Great point, but the Permit Patty type stuff makes me think it’s us versus us (or white versus black) with the police as the weapon.

    I read a piece recently–I can’t remember the author, but he/she was black–wherein they expressed the belief, probably entirely justified, that a white person threatening to call the police for a minor (or non-existent) conflict with a black person is a not-too-veiled way of threatening the black person with death.




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  9. Mikey says:

    @TM01: @de stijl kind of beat me to it, but really, we can what-if this to death and it doesn’t change the fact the cop tased a guy who was doing nothing besides sitting on the curb and trying to comply with a confusing set of commands.




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  10. de stijl says:

    @TM01:

    You, TM01, might be planning nefarious actions right this second. We cannot know.

    Perhaps to protect ourselves from your potential future evil actions, we should tase you right now. In the back. While you’re sitting down.

    It’s the the only way to be safe.




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  11. michilines says:
  12. James Pearce says:

    @Mikey:

    that a white person threatening to call the police for a minor (or non-existent) conflict with a black person is a not-too-veiled way of threatening the black person with death.

    I can see it.

    A few years ago, my Dad called the cops on my nephew, a teenager at the time, for smoking weed. I was livid. I told him, Do not call armed government agents to come ruin your grandson’s life because you’re too stupid to know that Arnold Swarzenegger and not Andy Griffith is going to show up.




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  13. An Interested Party says:

    …so, playing devil’s advocate here, suppose the officer doesn’t fire the taser, goes to cuff the guy, and a fight ensures as he resists arrest?

    For a really devilish alternative, imagine if the cop shot him rather than tased him…I’m sure there are plenty of people who would think that would be justified because the cop might have feared for his life…maybe that guy’s back might have struck the cop in the face and killed him…I guess you never know…

    Do we end up with another Eric Garner-ish situation as police try to subdue him?

    Oh, you mean another situation where someone is choked to death by the cops for the crime of selling loosies…perhaps the city of Lancaster has a lot of money set aside to pay a family settlement…




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  14. TM01 says:

    @An Interested Party:
    Well, look at you. Arguing for smaller govt.
    Don’t pass a law where you aren’t willing to see someone killed by the police over it.




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  15. TM01 says:

    @de stijl: hmm.
    Who was the a-hole here a day or two ago saying that the good of society ALWAYS trumps (no relation) the rights of the individual?




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  16. An Interested Party says:

    Well, look at you. Arguing for smaller govt.

    Umm, smarter government…

    Don’t pass a law where you aren’t willing to see someone killed by the police over it.

    So the cops have the right to shoot you the next time you’re speeding…that’s good to know…




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  17. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Hey… c’mon now.

    What good is a gun or taser if you can’t use it every once in a while, right?

    Respect mah authoritah !!!




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  18. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @TM01:

    The greater good with respect to protecting society from the legitimate risk of harm is always superior to the rights of the individual.

    You can’t even paraphrase honestly. Pretty difficult to characterize the legitimate risk of harm inherent in a compliant detainee peacefully doing his best (from all appearances) to cooperate.




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  19. Matt says:

    @An Interested Party:

    For a really devilish alternative, imagine if the cop shot him rather than tased him…I’m sure there are plenty of people who would think that would be justified because the cop might have feared for his life

    WE don’t have to imagine it because there are videos of cops doing exactly that.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-ntTJLXYMA
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqBAOX6Qegk

    ALways justified according to the courts and the boot lickers…




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  20. Hal_10000 says:

    Tasers are *supposed* to be a non-lethal alternative to guns. But what they have become is a punishment device; a way of inflicting massive pain on anyone the police think is non-compliant or just hacks them off. The incidents you talk about are the tip of the iceberg. We have documentation of cops routinely using taser on citizens, even tasing people — sometimes juveniles — that are restrained.




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  21. george says:

    @Hal_10000:

    Yup. The RCMP (Canadian federal police) in Vancouver killed a Polish man at the airport a few years back with a taser, basically for the crime of being dehydrated and not speaking English. What was especially “interesting” was that it turned out they’d decided (there were four of them) that they decided beforehand (ie before even arriving on the scene) that they were going to taser him.




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  22. Kylopod says:

    While I suppose it’s fortunate that the officer involved in this incident used a Taser rather than a gun

    I’m a little surprised no one in this thread so far has brought up the obvious point that Tasers are used more often than guns because they are (supposedly) nonlethal.




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  23. teve tory says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Don’t pass a law where you aren’t willing to see someone killed by the police over it.

    Wow, it’s 8:40 am and I’ve already read the stupidest goddam thing I’ll read all day.




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  24. wr says:

    @TM01: “Don’t pass a law where you aren’t willing to see someone killed by the police over it.”

    I don’t think liquor stores should sell whiskey to ten year olds, but I’m not willing to see someone killed by the police over it. Shall we abolish that law?

    I don’t think someone should be allowed to spray paint “moron lives here” all over your trailer, but I’m not willing to see someone killed by the police over it. Shall we abolish that law?

    I don’t think cabinet secretaries should be allowed to see the health and welfare of this nation’s citizens to the highest bidder, but I’m only barely willing to see someone killed by the police over it.

    Basically you’re stating that the only laws we should have are for capital crimes. I know you don’t believe this, and if you gave it one second’s thought you’d know how moronic it is. But then, if you ever gave anything one moment’s thought before posting, you wouldn’t be Trump voter.




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  25. Timothy Watson says:

    @An Interested Party:

    I’m sure there are plenty of people who would think that would be justified because the cop might have feared for his life

    It’s also amazing the number of police officers who are abject cowards, afraid of their own shadows.

    It’s also absurd that the courts and the public are supposed to judge everything about policing on a subjective basis, i.e., what the police office thought, instead on a reasonable, objective basis. If Joe Sixpack shots someone and claims self-defense, everything in the case would be judged on whether he had a reasonable, objective basis to shot the other person.




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  26. Mister Bluster says:

    What is everyone whining about? The cops are just following orders!

    Trump to police: ‘Please don’t be too nice’ to suspects




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  27. An Interested Party says:

    Wow, it’s 8:40 am and I’ve already read the stupidest goddam thing I’ll read all day.

    Well, it did come from TM01, so what do you expect…




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  28. wr says:

    @Timothy Watson: ” If Joe Sixpack shots someone and claims self-defense, everything in the case would be judged on whether he had a reasonable, objective basis to shot the other person.”

    Except in Florida and other states where NRA-purchased Republicans have passed “stand your ground” laws.




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  29. de stijl says:

    @TM01:

    Who was the a-hole here a day or two ago saying that the good of society ALWAYS trumps (no relation) the rights of the individual?

    Zero idea what you’re referring to.

    I actually think you’ve misidentified me as your interlocutor from “a day or two ago”. I rarely engage with you because it is absolutely pointless.

    Occasionally, I will slag you when you being egregiously moronic (which, let’s face it, that is basically a thrice daily thing, but my ratio for slagging you for being a moron as opposed to the times you actually are a moron is something like 1 to 100.

    I don’t think you’re remembering correctly. I haven’t engage you in many weeks. Your paraphrased quote / accusation wasn’t me unless you can give me a citation.




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