Use of force by city police declines

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A YouTube video that showed city police hitting a Pirates fan with nightsticks and Taser jolts drew both public cries of brutality and praise from members of law enforcement, who said their force effectively subdued a resisting reveler.

The April video caused a rare sensation, but it also brought to light the kinds of force Pittsburgh police used in more than one out of every 20 arrests last year, incidents that are outlined in depth for the first time in recently released police bureau statistics.

The encounters -- called "subject resistance reports" in police vernacular -- offer glimpses into the rigors of police work and raise questions about how officers interact with the difficult, sometimes disorderly public.

Police used almost all kinds of force, from forcible handcuffing to discharging their firearms, slightly less often in 2010 than they did the year before. They did so mostly against men in their 20s, most often to effect arrest and most commonly at night or early in the morning.

Though uses of force were down, more of the people on which it was used suffered injuries than in 2009. Of 397 people who police said resisted their arrests, 48 percent said they were hurt, and 54 were admitted or treated at hospitals. Most wounds amounted to "cuts and abrasions to the face resulting from strikes to the face or from the ground," suffered when officers fought with them or took them to the ground, the report says.

Five times more men than women were subjected to force, according to the data, which also show that such incidents happened most frequently on the South Side, likely because of its many bars and nightclubs. The Central Business District of Downtown came in second, with 27 use-of-force incidents, and the North Shore, home to Heinz Field and PNC Park, accounted for 17.

Officers who resorted to force most often did so through forcible handcuffing, the low end of the use-of-force continuum, which specifies what an officer should do when confronted with a certain level of noncompliance. Officer David Wright, the city academy's lead defensive tactics instructor, regularly reviews such incidents and said last year's were fairly indicative of the kinds of problems officers routinely encounter on the streets.

Other most common ways officers subdued arrestees included "takedowns," in which an officer must bring a resisting person to the ground to restrain him, Taser jolts, the use of pepper spray and a category called "other," which included pushing, pulling and grabbing. The use of "OC spray" was the method that increased most from 2009, likely a result of recently tweaked training that focuses on when officers should use Tasers or when the chemical spray would be more effective, Officer Wright said.

Officers discharged their guns 70 times in 2010, down from 100 times the year before, when three officers were fatally shot in the line of duty. No officers were killed last year, but 18 fired their weapons in self-defense in 15 different situations involving 13 people. The report says police shot to death three people, one more than in 2009, and injured at least six others with firearms.

The year before, when police found themselves in a deadly gun battle with a sniper in Stanton Heights, 37 officers fired their guns in self-defense.

"There is a percentage of people out there who will fight the police at the drop of a hat," Officer Wright said. "They don't care."

City officers receive 80 hours of use-of-force training that includes physical and legal aspects, he said, and "overall, officers do a good job of using force for a city our size."

Still, it is hard to know how Pittsburgh's force statistics compare to those of other cities because national data on the subject are not collected. Even if they were, experts said, comparing police use-of-force among cities is challenging because force is not universally defined.

Interpreting the numbers is also tricky. Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the city's Citizen Police Review Board, which was among groups that lobbied the police bureau for more information on officers' use of force, said the data are helpful but also require further explanation to be truly understood.

"You do get a sense of when the public acts out. ... They're great for inviting questions, but you can't take them at face value," she said. "It makes you wonder about a lot of things."


Sadie Gurman: sgurman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.


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