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Sunday, December 04, 2011

Manufacturer study: Taser worked fine

December 2, 2011
Pat Bywater, Mead Tribune

MEADVILLE — The Taser a Meadville police officer was using when it struck a resident in the eye does not appear to have been malfunctioning, but investigators may never be able to independently determine where the officer had aimed the Taser.

Those details are the highlights of a report completed by the device’s manufacturer at the request of the City of Meadville. The report was released to The Meadville Tribune as part of a request made by the newspaper under the state’s Open Records Law.

The forensic report from Taser International Inc. dated Nov. 1 is the latest significant development in a case that has had several odd turns.

It all started at 6:15 p.m. Aug. 23 in a church parking lot at 1080 Market St. when Meadville police responded to a call indicating that Market Street resident Michael Mondo was creating a disturbance. The Tribune’s investigation revealed that during the days before the incident the police had been warned by local mental health authorities that Mondo was struggling with paranoid schizophrenia. The officers who responded to the call were aware of this and the Crawford County Mental Health Crisis Team was summoned to the scene by police when the call came in.

Before the crisis team arrived, however, one of the two officers at the scene, Sgt. Glen Peterson, a 32-year veteran of the force, elected to deploy his Taser to subdue Mondo. Meadville Police Chief David Stefanucci recently revealed to the Tribune that Peterson claims Mondo was told to stop moving at least twice but did not comply and kept moving. At that point, according to Stefanucci, Peterson said he aimed the Taser at Mondo’s “low center mass,” not his head.

The Taser shoots out barbs that hook on to a person’s skin or clothes. They are attached to the Taser with wires that carry an electric discharge that disables the person temporarily.

In the Aug. 23 incident, one of the Taser’s barbs impaled Mondo’s right eye, which he later lost after unsuccessful surgeries. Mondo, who disputes the claim that he was suffering from mental health issues the day of the incident, says he has suffered some memory loss after the incident and that his recollection of that day is sketchy. He said he recalls the officers appearing and one of them asking him if he had been drinking. His next memory is of after the Tasering.

The public would not learn of the incident for some time.

It appears that the report of the incident may have been excluded from the police paperwork typically made available to the media. A tipster contacted the Tribune and The Associated Press with information about the incident the week of Sept. 12 and Mondo was not charged with any wrongdoing in the incident until Sept. 14.

In the first media reports about the incident, which were published Sept. 17, The Associated Press indicated Meadville Police Chief David Stefanucci said he had no reports about the Tasering. However, when a subsequent Meadville Tribune open records request revealed evidence that as many as five reports had been filed within a week of the incident, Stefanucci told the Tribune in a story published Nov. 4 that he had been misquoted by The Associated Press, although he said he does not remember exactly what he said. Stefanucci said that he never sought a correction of the story because he did not want to try a potential court case in the media or make any comments that might influence such a case.

The Associated Press is declining comment until an investigation into the claim is complete.

Meanwhile, the city launched an effort to learn more about how the Taser ended up hitting Mondo in the eye. Police policy calls on officers to avoid aiming at the head, and in statements after the incident, Peterson claimed he did not aim at Mondo’s head. As a result, city officials wanted to determine if the Taser perhaps malfunctioned. Stefanucci revealed in a recent interview that he arranged to have the Taser tested by its Scottsdale, Ariz.-based maker.

Under an open records request, the Tribune obtained the Nov. 1 report of the tests, which were conducted Sept. 9. The testers concluded that the Taser appears to be working properly and that “there is no reason not to return the Taser ... to service.” In a subsequent interview with the Tribune, Stefanucci confirmed that the Taser is currently being used by Meadville police.

The Taser testers also reviewed the video automatically taken by the Taser whenever the weapon’s safety is put in the off position. From that video the testers could not determine where the weapon’s laser sight was aimed when it was deployed, or even if the laser was turned on. However, the testers suggested that they might not have been able to detect the laser point due to sunlight at the time of the incident and the quality of the Taser’s video camera.

In part, the report reads: “because the laser aiming device is a low power eye safe red laser, it may not have been visible during the incident. Inside a building or at night it appears bright, however, because it is a low power eye safe laser, it is difficult for the human eye to see the laser, even at very close distances, in sunlight. The ability of the Taser cam to pick up visible details of the laser is less than the human eye.”

In a subsequent interview, Stefanucci said all Meadville police Tasers are configured so that the laser pointer is engaged automatically whenever the device’s safety goes into the off position. He also pointed out that all Tasers are equipped with fixed aiming sights so that officers can aim correctly even when they cannot see the laser point.

Stefanucci said he and Meadville City Manager Joe Chriest discussed sending the Taser to be checked by a company other than its manufacturer, but neither of them were familiar with companies that do that kind of work. “We are looking into it,” said Chriest. “We will have to look at their reputations,” he said.

Mondo’s attorney, Terry Toomey of Meadville, did not criticize the city’s effort to have the Taser tested. “It would seem to me to be reasonable and appropriate to send the Taser to see that it was operational and working as appropriate,” Toomey said. As for sending it to be tested by a company other than Taser, “I’m not sure where else they would take it,” he responded.

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