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Courts & Justice

Police procedure experts say Pittsburgh officers lacked justification to use Taser in Rogers arrest

Jim Rogers protest vigil signs
Julia Zenkevich
/
90.5 WESA

One police policy expert called the October arrest and death of Jim Rogers a “catastrophic failure,” that did not require the use of a Taser. Another said it violated “almost the entire manual of orders” city police are required to follow.

Their assessments came in response to the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police announcement this week that eight officers — including two supervisors — will face discipline and the bureau is re-evaluating some of its procedures after an internal review of Rogers' arrest and death.

Rogers died on Oct. 14, one day after officers shocked him with a Taser while arresting him in Bloomfield. Police were responding to a report of an alleged bicycle theft, though neighbors argued Rogers returned the bike before police arrived. Officers said Rogers was non-compliant during their initial confrontation, but body camera footage shows Rogers cooperating, according to a report obtained by the Tribune Review.

According to Pittsburgh Police standards, officers are not permitted to deploy a Taser on compliant or passively resistant individuals strictly to gain their compliance.

“There was no justification for that. At all. The use of a Taser is a use of force. I have been tased. It is a use of force, believe me,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor and a nationally recognized expert on police behavior, law enforcement and race, and search and seizure law.

“This is not needed, not necessary, outside of policy, outside of the law, and it leads to everything that happened afterwards," he said.

Beth Pittinger, executive director of Pittsburgh's Citizen Police Review Board, echoed Harris' evaluation, saying the list of protocols broken during the police encounter with Rogers is long.

“You could say almost the entire manual of orders,” was violated, Pittinger said. “You have neglect of duty. You have supervisory duties violated. You have [the] duty to intervene violated. I mean, you had a whole slew of them.”

Reports indicate that Rogers repeatedly requested medical attention after he was shocked. The Tribune-Review reported that Rogers was in distress for 17 minutes and received no medical attention during that time. He was taken to UPMC Mercy, where he died the next day.

Harris said every officer on the scene neglected their duties to intervene and ensure proper procedure was followed. Emergency medical services personnel who responded after the Taser was deployed also did not treat Rogers, despite his repeated calls for help, reported the Tribune-Review.

“This is a catastrophic system failure,” Harris said. “We need to have individual accountability for people who did not do their jobs or did them inappropriately resulting in this catastrophe. But that’s not enough. We have to look at this as the catastrophe that it was.”

The city has not publicized the findings of its internal review or publicly named the officers involved in the incident. Union contract provisions limit the details the city may provide about how the officers will be disciplined.

Police officials on Tuesday announced policy changes that have been made as a result of Rogers’ death. Among them is a new requirement for officers to become fully certified emergency medical responders and mandatory medical evaluations of people who have been shocked with a Taser.

But Pittinger said she wonders if officers rely on Tasers too often. A policy change earlier this year relaxed the limits on the use of Tasers by classifying them at the same level as pepper spray, she said.

While the change was intended as a de-escalation tactic, it may have contributed to an increase in the use of Tasers by police, she said.

“[It’s] giving license to use it more frequently, perhaps a little bit more freely,” Pittinger said. The Citizen’s Police Review Board plans to deliver a report to the bureau in February about the efficacy of a Taser as a “less-lethal” device and to suggest that the bureau should review its position on how Tasers are used, she added.

“It’s a tool of coercion…it’s a tool to gain compliance through pain,” she said. “It doesn’t take finesse to use a Taser. It takes finesse to de-escalate something.”

The Citizen Police Review Board will conduct an independent investigation into Rogers’ death. The Allegheny County District Attorney’s office is still investigating the incident and whether criminal charges should be filed against the officers involved. A spokesman declined to provide a timeline for its conclusion.

Pittinger said her inquiry will begin after the district attorney’s investigation is completed.

More to be done

Pittsburgh Police officials on Tuesday said all personnel will receive additional training on the duty to intervene to prevent the use of excessive force. But Pittinger and Harris both said greater changes are needed to prevent a similar incident from occurring.

Harris called for a complete review by "all stakeholders" of the city’s use-of-force policies and its law enforcement institutions.

“I would recommend that when they have this kind of overall failure — especially one that results in the death of a citizen — that they review their entire system,” he said. “It’s clear that there were multiple failures at multiple levels, from training to supervision, to knowledge of the law. And if we don’t address this as the system failure that it is, we will see something like it happen again,” he said.

Pittinger also said she believes it’s time to re-evaluate how law enforcement recruits and trains new officers. She suggested creating several Pennsylvania police academies that require two to four years of training before an officer enters the field.

Currently, the Pittsburgh Police Bureau requires new recruits to have completed 30 semester credits, or about 10 classes, at an accredited college, university, technical or trade school before entering the academy. But Pittinger said officers should receive additional academic training.

“That [would give] us a little more confidence in the background and character-building that we have in the officers coming on the job,” she said. “Brawn [alone] doesn’t make it… if we want professional cops, then we need to train them as such.”

A BBC report found the United States requires among the lowest average number of training hours, compared to other developed nations.

Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability and a longtime advocate for change in policing in Pittsburgh, called for a cultural shift within the bureau as well.

The Alliance for Police Accountability has been a prominent voice at the Black Lives Matter protests, and it campaigned for the successful initiative to ban no-knock search warrants in Pittsburgh earlier this year.

“We’re talking about re-imagining public safety and not using police to respond to certain situations,” Fisher said. “I’d move beyond policy to a change of culture.”

Fisher said officers were not needed that day in Bloomfield because Rogers returned the bike after a misunderstanding. She said she believes officers feel justified in using force after agitating citizens instead of talking to them.

“Especially Black people… are very apprehensive to call the police. This is why we say that the police don’t equal safety,” Fisher said. “More often than not, simple interactions like a traffic stop or a minor offense end with people losing their lives.”

Fisher agrees that a re-evaluation of policing in Pittsburgh is a part of the solution — and it needs to happen before someone else dies, she said.

“The way to address this is to make sure we’re not waiting for things to rise to this level,” she said. “We don’t want to wait until people are harmed… when we see this behavior, we have to take it [seriously] because we know what it could escalate to.”