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There's too much we don't know about Taser use in Pittsburgh

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In today's Pittsburgh, when a police officer fires a 50,000-volt stun gun at a political protester, you can find out the officer's name, address, and life story with a few clicks of a computer keyboard. But it's almost impossible, strangely, to discover the city policies that put the weapon in that officer's hands.

 

So we must conclude from the fallout of an anti-military protest held in Oakland on Aug. 20. Footage of an altercation between police and protesters disturbed many Pittsburghers who saw it on TV stations and Internet sites. Yet despite all the coverage, we know too little -- and arguably too much -- about what happened that day.

 

Video from the event showed a young female protester on the ground, apparently under police control, when an officer fired a Taser stun gun at her and paralyzed her with an electric charge. Activists say that was an act of police abuse. Police Chief Robert McNeilly contends there is literally more going on than meets the eye. "The video being shown picks up where she is on the ground, and where police officers have a hold on her," McNeilly says. But he and others close to the city's investigation contend that footage not yet made public shows the protester "struggling with officers" moments before the Taser was fired.

 

In any case, no one disputes what happened in the following days. The home address of the officer who fired the Taser was posted anonymously on indypgh.org, a local Web site frequented by political activists. It's worth nothing that, according to McNeilly, no one has harassed or threatened the officer or his family. It may be creepy that activists have access to such information, but apparently they haven't abused it.

 

Still, McNeilly and others are calling for property owners' names to be removed from the county's real estate Web site, where the officer's address was apparently found. More worrisome is this: Although the Aug. 20 incident has prompted concerns about Tasers, McNeilly has refused to release the department policy that dictates their use.

 

McNeilly will say that stun guns are approved only "at the level of active resistance, when somebody is punching an officer" or threatening to do so. Police departments elsewhere, by contrast, will zap you for less. According to a recent federal survey of Taser use, in other cities you can be hit with a stun gun for merely "'passively resisting' by not responding to [police] commands."

 

But McNeilly won't disclose the rest of Pittsburgh's policy, because of "the criminal element that attends the protests. They'll use whatever information they can get to counter the tactics we use."

 

Indeed, some activists -- including some attending the Aug. 20 demonstration -- wear bandanas over their faces partly to protect themselves from pepper spray. McNeilly notes that the city's Taser policy includes a code word officers use to warn each other that a stun gun is being fired, and he doesn't want that word becoming public. Otherwise, though, McNeilly admits he's "not sure" anything else in the policy would be dangerous to reveal. "I haven't reviewed the policy with the mindset of the criminal element," he says.

 

From a different mindset, however, the question is if it might be dangerous not to reveal the policy. There is growing concern nationwide that Tasers can have dangerous health effects, especially on the young or old. McNeilly says, "There are ages we try not to go under or over," but he won't disclose them. Are some groups at risk under the current policy? Could police take additional steps to protect them?

 

Without seeing the policy, it's hard to know. Many of us distrust the motives of protesters who hide behind bandanas; what should we think of concealing the tactics used to control public protests?

 

The biggest disappointment about Aug. 20, in fact, may be how similarly the police and protesters behaved. Some activists wear bandanas to fend off "Big Brother" surveillance -- only to have others disseminate personal information about police. McNeilly's reluctance to disclose tactics, meanwhile, will likely fuel "Big Brother" suspicions even more.

 

Even those who never attend protests may pay a price for the mutual distrust. We may lose access to information about county property. More importantly, we may miss a chance to ensure Tasers are used as safely as possible.

 

We'd all be better off if protesters and the police stopped acting like they had something to hide.

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