Pittsburgh's Citizen Police Review Board began this year as it spent most of the previous two years: understaffed and unable to act, even on a recommendation not to act.
The seven-member board, depleted since 2003 when four members left and the mayor and City Council failed to nominate replacements, was short of a working quorum because none of the new members showed up. According to executive director Elizabeth Pittinger, Richard Carrington had a funeral to attend, Malik Bankston was stuck in Harrisburg and ex-Pittsburgh Police homicide detective Ronald Freeman (one of two ex-law enforcement officials required for the board) simply didn't make it.
The 8-year-old voter-mandated board, created to oversee complaints waged by citizens against police, was left to discuss Pittinger's recommendation that the board do nothing about city police use of TASER guns. The TASER M26, 150 of which are currently in police hands, is a 6-inch stun gun that projects a dart, attached to the weapon by wire, up to 21 feet, delivering a 50,000-volt charge that immobilizes the body and, sometimes, causes a person to soil himself. It's considered a non-lethal instrument, although 84 deaths have been reported in the five years that TASERs have been on the market for police and the public. Amnesty International has called for suspending its use.
Most of those deaths were people who were either intoxicated by drugs, had pre-existing heart conditions or were put in some fatal grip by police, such as holds that lead to "positional asphyxiation," Pittinger says.
City council recently voted to expand the city's TASER arsenal. Pittinger says Pittsburgh police will have 210 by the end of the year.
"In good conscience, I cannot recommend suspension of TASER at this time," Pittinger says, "as it has proven to be a safer alternative" to deadly force weapons, such as guns, dogs and, in some cases, batons. "Inasmuch as there is an incident of death ... it has undoubtedly saved lives."