Stun gun use raises serious questions

Video of a Lancaster city police officer using a stun gun against a black man went viral last week after it was uploaded to Facebook. According to the Lancaster City Bureau of Police, officers responded to a disturbance on the first block of South Prince Street involving a man identified as Sean D. Williams, 27.

Williams was told by police officers to sit down on the sidewalk. At least two officers shouted seemingly contradictory instructions on how they wanted him to sit; when he didn’t comply quickly, Officer Philip Bernot deployed his stun gun on him. The video had been viewed more than 2.7 million times on Facebook as of Monday.

The video is difficult to watch. And it plays out like a disturbing game of “Simon Says,” except it is no game.

Williams is sitting on a curb as Bernot directs him to put his legs out straight before him.

“Straight out! Straight out! Straight out!” Bernot shouts repeatedly. “Legs straight out, or you’re getting Tased.”

Williams’ arms are outstretched; his back is to Bernot.

Williams is still in the process of straightening his legs when a female officer yells, “Put your legs straight out and cross them now” (which seems like a contradictory command to us).

As he begins to cross his legs, he is struck by Bernot’s stun gun.

As Williams writhes in pain, Bernot shouts out different orders: “On your stomach! On your stomach! Arms out like an airplane!”

A bystander yells to the officer: “Oh, come on, brah! You really going to Tase him? He was sitting down though, brah!”

Those were our thoughts, too.

City police said in a statement last week that noncompliance “is often a precursor to someone that is preparing to flee or fight with Officers.”

But on the video, there’s no sign that Williams was preparing to flee. The officers didn’t appear to be facing any imminent threat — or any threat at all.

Williams makes no move toward the officers — in fact, he continued to sit on the curb, facing away from the officers, until the electric current of the stun gun caused his body to twist and buckle.

At a rally on June 29 held to protest this use of force by the police, Williams told LNP’s Tim Stuhldreher that Bernot had been speaking too quickly for him to follow the officer’s instructions.

He was accompanied at the rally by his mother, Dana York, who said, “If that was a gun, my son would have been dead.”

We admire the dedication of police officers, including those in the Lancaster. Law enforcement is dangerous and demanding work, and we are grateful there are good people willing to do it.

But sometimes, police officers — being human — make mistakes.

Williams wasn’t charged for anything he’d done. He was arrested on a warrant for unrelated charges (possession of a controlled substance and public drunkenness), arraigned and then released on unsecured bail.

So why the use of force?

Make no mistake: Firing a stun gun is a use of force. And it can cause cardiac arrest and death. In 2010, a 61-year-old Mount Joy man died after police used a stun gun against him multiple times. And a 25-year-old Reading man died last year after police used a stun gun on him.

We appreciate that Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace quickly issued a video statement in which she said, “Like you, when I saw the video, I was upset by it, and it is of great concern to me. And we take the use of force very seriously.”

She said an investigation was underway, and that’s as it should be.

Sorace also said — wisely, in our view — that the incident “affirmed my resolve to implement a body camera program here in the city of Lancaster.”

As we’ve asserted before, body cameras protect both community residents and police officers.

The widely disseminated video of the incident has been met with understandable concern.

More than 200 people rallied on June 29 on the steps of the Lancaster County Courthouse. The crowd was notably diverse, and those gathered were seeking answers, not vengeance.

“We are not anti-police,” Michael Booth, campus pastor at Water Street Mission, said. “What we are against is bad policing.”

Stuhldreher reported that the rally speakers called for Bernot’s suspension, a community meeting with the police and the creation of a civilian review board to review such incidents in the future.

A community meeting seems imperative — the least city and police officials could do, really.

While the instinct of some officials may be to retreat, public engagement will yield better results.