Video Shows Police Officer Firing Stun Gun at Unarmed Man Sitting on Curb

A still frame from a video posted on Facebook shows a Lancaster, Pa., police offer firing a stun gun at the back of an African-American man after the man did not straighten his legs when the officer asked him to.
By Mihir Zaveri
June 29, 2018

“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.

CreditLancaster City Bureau of Police
Lancaster, which is about 60 miles west of Philadelphia, has a population of about 60,000. Its residents are about 60 percent white and 17 percent African-American, according to the most recent estimates from the United States Census Bureau.

Nationwide, African-American people are far more likely than white people and other groups to be subjected to use of force by the police, according to a 2016 study by the Center for Policing Equity, a New York-based think tank. Stun guns, sometimes used by officers as an alternative to deadly force, have been at the center of some of law enforcement’s biggest recent controversies.

Earlier this year, body camera footage of Milwaukee police officers using a stun gun on the N.B.A. player Sterling Brown led to discipline for the officers and an apology from the Milwaukee mayor.

In 2009, a white Bay Area transit police officer shot and killed an unarmed African-American man, Oscar Grant III, while Mr. Grant was lying face down on a Bay Area Rapid Transit platform. The officer, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, said that the killing was an accident and that he had mistaken his sidearm for his Taser.

In 2008, an officer with the New York Police Department fired a Taser at an emotionally disturbed man on a ledge in Brooklyn, in violation of departmental guidelines, and the man fell some 10 feet to his death. The lieutenant who had given the order to fire the Taser killed himself eight days later.

Tasers, said Mr. Alpert, the criminologist, are often used by the police more freely than firearms when officers are seeking to get someone to comply with orders. But, Mr. Alpert said, Tasers themselves can be deadly.

A Reuters investigation published in 2017 found that more than 1,000 people in the United States had died after being stunned with Tasers, largely since 2000. In more than 150 of those cases, the Tasers were a cause or contributing factor to the people’s deaths, the news organization reported.

In a report describing Thursday morning’s encounter, the Lancaster police said that when officers responded to reports that a man was attacking a group of people, they found Mr. Williams demanding his Social Security card from a woman.

Officer Bernot asked Mr. Williams to sit down on the curb, the police report said — an interaction which is shown on the video — and then directed Mr. Williams several times to straighten his legs. Mr. Williams was then shot with the Taser.

The Police Bureau said in its report that directing suspects to straighten their legs helps prevent them from running away or fighting with police. “Noncompliance is often a precursor to someone that is preparing to flee or fight,” the report states.

Mr. Williams was taken to the police station for a previous arrest warrant and checked by emergency medical workers before being released on $5,000 bail, the police said. He could not be reached for comment Friday.

Ms. Sorace, the town’s mayor, said the encounter underscored the need for police body cameras in Lancaster. Her chief of staff said Lancaster and several other small Pennsylvania cities had applied for funding from a state commission that would allow them to start a body camera program. The goal is to have officers using them by next year.

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