Taser Use Not a Fluke, Hearings Reveal | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Taser Use Not a Fluke, Hearings Reveal


Three of the anti-military recruitment protesters arrested during an Aug. 20 rally face trial after a preliminary hearing that put the official reasons for their arrests into doubt -- and revealed that one officer sought to use his Taser more than once during the rally, and that another officer threatened to use hers.



During the rally, in which 100 protesters blocked entry to Oakland's military recruiting center on Forbes Avenue, freelance cameraman Thomas G. Sypula was filming from within the crowd of black-clad protesters when he claimed he was assaulted. Sypula pointed out protester Edris Robinson to Pittsburgh Police officer Heather Bristow as the culprit. Robinson was arrested and fellow protester De'anna Caligiuri was pepper-sprayed and stunned by a Taser in the course of her arrest as she allegedly tried to hold Robinson back from police.


During the Sept. 27 hearing, Sypula revealed that he never saw his alleged assailant and was not physically harmed in the incident, in which his four-pound camera was bumped against his face. The camera was damaged, although it worked well enough to film the rest of the protest. He accused Robinson, Sypula said, after Robinson yelled at him to leave the scene.


Bristow said from her spot on the street she saw a light-skinned black man striking Sypula, which caused the dark-skinned Robinson to shake his head in court. She testified that she had intended to speak to Robinson at first, arresting him only after he ran. He cooperated after she threatened him with a Taser, she told the court.


Several city and University of Pittsburgh police testified that Caligiuri was rolling on the ground or waving her arms during her arrest. City officer Samuel Muoio told the hearing he arrived on the scene and spotted her "attempt[ing] to flee," and "struggling" while on the ground, warning her three times before using the Taser on her.


How long between his warnings and his Taser use, Caligiuri's defense attorney Mike Healey asked.


"Seconds," Muoio said.


Meanwhile, protestors carrying a large sign at the head of the protest were either pushing it out toward the street (as the defense contended) or "charging" or "surging" with the sign at police (as officers testified). Muoio testified that "since I had no cartridges left," he sought to use a "dry stun" on the group. In law-enforcement parlance, a "dry stun" is when an officer does not fire the Taser dart, which is propelled by CO2 cartridges, but touches a suspect's body with electric conductors mounted on the Taser, delivering a shock. 


University of Pittsburgh plainclothes officer David Basile added a third version of events, telling the judge that he grabbed the sign, backpedaled and "tried to stop it by pulling it down," along with protester Justin Krane, the third member to face charges in an upcoming trial.


Protester David Strouthers, who sat on the sidewalk as one officer dispersed the crowd with a police dog at the end of the protest, pleaded guilty in exchange for having his charges reduced to a summary offense, and paid a fine.


District Judge James Hanley dismissed or reduced some charges against all the defendants, but three still face trial over the Aug. 20 incidents.


Carole Wiedmann, whom the police dog tried to bite as the demonstration broke up, has been charged with failure to disperse. Her hearing date is Oct. 11 in municipal court.

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By Mars Johnson