A Pennsylvania police officer is under investigation after a recent cellphone video recorded him deploying a Taser on an unarmed man sitting on a sidewalk. Although police reports claim the man was not complying with the officer’s orders, the video revealed that the officers were issuing contradicting commands shortly before the Taser was fired.
On Thursday morning, Lancaster Police Officer Shannon Mazzante responded to a 911 call reporting a man with a baseball bat allegedly threatening three people. Upon arriving at the scene, Officer Mazzante discovered three people telling Sean Williams, 27, to get away from them.
According to police reports, Williams was not in possession of a bat, and the people in the group confirmed that Williams did not threaten them with a bat. However, he did repeatedly accuse a woman in the group of refusing to return his social security card.
As Officer Philip Bernot arrived at the scene, he ordered Williams to sit on the curb with his legs stretched out in front of him. The police report said, “Williams was instructed to stick his legs straight out in front of him and to cross his ankles. This is done as a measure of control to ensure that if someone is going to flee or offer physical resistance, they will have to move their legs under them to do so. Noncompliance is often a precursor to someone that is preparing to flee or fight with officers.”
A bystander named Juan Almestica began recording a cellphone video of the incident. In the video, Williams reluctantly appears to comply with Bernot’s orders by sitting on the curb and gradually extending his legs.
“Legs straight out or you’re getting tased,” Bernot orders while aiming his Taser at Williams’ back.
“Put your legs straight out and cross them now,” a female officer yells.
Given conflicting orders, Williams bends his knees and begins to place the bottom of his feet together when Bernot suddenly fires his Taser at him. Although the police report attempts to justify the use of the Taser by accusing Williams of noncompliance, the video reveals that he was given vague orders and did not appear to flee or assault the officers.
When told to cross his legs, Williams seemed to comply with the female officer’s orders, which contradicted Bernot’s order to keep his legs straight. According to the police report, Williams was ordered to cross his ankles. But according to the video, the female officer escalated the situation and confused Williams by ordering him to cross his legs instead.
“I could see the officer was still being aggressive with him and aiming his Taser, so that’s why I decided to start filming,” Almestica told ABC News in a telephone interview Friday. “One of the officers is telling him to put his legs straight, and another one is telling him to cross his legs. There were so many people shouting at him, he didn’t know what to do. Then they tased him because they said he wasn’t listening.”
After the Taser was deployed, Williams writhed in pain on the sidewalk before complying with the officers’ instructions to remain still while they placed him in handcuffs. Upon apprehending Williams, police learned that there was an outstanding criminal warrant for his arrest for possession of a controlled substance and public drunkenness. Williams was taken into custody on the warrant and transported to the police station.
“Like you, when I saw the video, I was upset by it, and it is of great concern to me,” Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace said in a video statement. “We take the use of force very seriously.”
While calling for a police body camera program, Sorace announced that an investigation has been launched into Bernot’s use of force. On Friday night, dozens of demonstrators protesting outside Lancaster County Courthouse called for an end to police brutality and an external investigation into the incident.
“There is an investigation that has already commenced regarding the use of force in this incident, and we are in communication with other civil rights groups and other individuals to address the concerns,” Sorace stated. “We’ll be continuing the investigation over the coming days.”