01/26/2006

Official: Pa. police video off limits to public

Brandon Keat

Copyright 2006 Tribune Review Publishing Company
All Rights Reserved 

Mt. Lebanon has denied a resident's request to view a dashboard-camera videotape of a controversial July traffic stop in which police used a stun gun on a 66-year-old pizzeria owner.

Mt. Lebanon Manager Stephen Feller rejected the request from Rob Whitfield, saying Tuesday that the tape is exempt from the public Right-to-Know laws because the video has been part of criminal and internal investigations.

Police sparked an uproar in July, when they shocked Frank Caruso with a 50,000-volt Taser. Officers had pulled him over for illegally parking in front of his Washington Road pizza shop. Officials determined after an internal investigation that the Taser's use was justified.

Withholding the video is an act of "needles secrecy and suggests an arrogance that is disturbing," Whitfield said.

The municipality also has denied a request from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review to view the videotape.

The drama unfolded July 21, when Caruso pulled his 1984 Volvo onto a sidewalk near his Caruso Pizza shop to pick up his wife, Josephine, 61.

What occurred afterward -- all of it captured by a dashboard camera in a police cruiser -- is in dispute.

Police have said Caruso cursed at them, slapped an officer's hand, then made a fist and cocked his arm, prompting an officer to fire a Taser at Caruso's chest. The 5-foot-5-inch Caruso admits using profanities, yelling and waving his arms, but denies he touched an officer.

"There's a difference in stories ... between the Carusos and the officers involved," Whitfield said. "If what the Carusos are saying is correct, then it's egregious behavior (by police) that deserves some sort of public reprimand."

Authorities in October dropped an aggravated-assault charge against Caruso in exchange for guilty pleas to disorderly conduct and a parking violation.

Whitfield took up the couple's cause, asking in September for a copy of the police department's Taser-use policy. The request was denied.

The video likely isn't a public record under Pennsylvania law, said Terri Henning, general counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.

The Taser-use policy, however, probably should be released, she said. Some critics have questioned the use of Tasers by police because of accidental deaths.

"The general rule is that police policy should be public, although there have been some exceptions where it threatens the safety of an individual," Henning said. "In my view, that would not fall under that exception."

The Carusos and their attorney might get to see the video if they file a civil lawsuit against the police department -- something that Feller said they have threatened to do.

Their attorney, John Linkosky, declined to comment on the possibility of a lawsuit.

"Their position in this is that neither one of them did anything or threatened anyone in any way which would justify the police officer firing the Taser into Mr. Caruso's chest," he said. "They just were, and are, dumbfounded by the whole thing." 
 
January 25, 2006

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