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City Council questions police policies on use of stun guns
Thursday, September 15, 2005

In the wake of a protest gone awry, Pittsburgh's police chief told City Council yesterday that his bureau has sufficient policies on the use of Tasers and crowd control.

Council members at a special meeting questioned whether those policies are specific enough, and the director of the Citizens Police Review Board urged that they be made public.

Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr. said he was withholding judgment on an Aug. 20 protest in Oakland until his bureau's internal investigators complete an investigation.

At that event, police tried to arrest a protester who they say punched a cameraman. One protester was subdued with pepper spray and a Taser stun gun, and another was bitten by a police dog.

McNeilly said he believed protesters carrying a piece of fencing charged police.

He said use of Tasers and pepper spray could be justified in circumstances that did not involve a threat to the life of an officer.

"Peaceful protests? No, we'll never [use weapons]," he said. "However, if somebody assaults a police officer, all bets are off."

He said that since Tasers were introduced, injuries to arresting officers have dropped from 13 in first six months of 2004 to six in first half of 2005.

Councilman Doug Shields questioned whether police policies on use of force, written for confrontations with individuals, were sufficient to govern group events. McNeilly said written policies on force, and on use of each different weapon, included sections on group events.

He flipped through a six-page policy on Tasers, saying it addressed when they should be used, by whom, and how their use should be documented.

McNeilly declined to release those policies, saying sophisticated anarchist groups might use them against police.

"There's no reason for it to be secret," countered Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the review board. "Tell us what the rules are. That's just fair play."

Pittinger said police departments in some other cities post use-of-force policies on the Internet.

David Meieran, a civil liberties activist who attended the Aug. 20 protest, said the use of a Taser in a protest situation was part of a national pattern that could "effect a chilling suppression of democracy and dissent."

First published on September 15, 2005 at 12:00 am
Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.
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