On June 28, Lancaster City Police tasered an unarmed Black man who was complying with orders and posed no threat.
A video of the incident, recorded by a bystander, quickly circulated through the community and the nation. It has gained millions of views and has been shared across social media.
The video shows 27-year-old Sean Williams as he sat on a curb along the street while officers called out orders to him. The officer, Philip Bernot, demanded Williams put his legs out, and William complied with the order. Then Bernot walked behind Williams and pulled out his taser. Another officer off screen, identified as Officer Shannon Mazzante, called out for Williams to “put your legs straight out and cross them now.” On the video, Bernet is heard also yelling, “legs straight out or you’re getting tased.” Before Williams was given a chance to comply, Bernot, fired the taser into William’s back causing him to flatten out on the sidewalk and yell out in pain.
The video clearly shows Williams posing no threat to the officer nor attempting to flee the police.
The community responds
Later that week, progressive activists and other outraged Lancaster residents gathered to demand justice for Williams. About 200 members of the community gathered on the Courthouse steps to demand the offending officers’ immediate suspension pending an investigation and a Citizens’ Review Board for Police in Lancaster City be formed.
On July 7, Lancaster’s Mayor Danene Sorace made a full statement on the incident. Sorace announced that Officer Williams and none of the officers involved would face being fired or suspended.
The mayor did not address any of the substantive demands that were made by the community. She only announced that she would hold meetings between the public and the police department. While this was one of the demands of the progressive organizations, it does not fundamentally address any of the concerns with police violence with in the community.
The statement the mayor read also announced that, starting next year, Lancaster City Police would begin to pilot body cameras on police officers.
Too little, too late
The city government’s response to police violence will not and cannot fundamentally address the issue of police brutality in working-class and poor communities in Lancaster, Pa. Body cameras do not address the systematic criminalization of working-class and poor communities, particularly Black and Brown communities. They only further criminalize our communities and increase police surveillance. Lancaster has already installed at least 165 surveillance cameras, comparable to the prevalence of cameras in major cities like Philadelphia despite having only a fraction of the population.
A symptom of a systemic disease
Just two days before the mayor’s full statement to the press, another incident of unnecessary violence by Lancaster Police spread across social media. This time it was footage of a police officer pushing a Black man’s face into the hard sidewalk pavement as he was handcuffed behind his back and laying on his stomach complying with the officer’s orders.
Understandably, the woman filming the arrest was outraged by the act of unnecessary force and challenged the officer on his use of violence. Once more police arrived, the officer began to threaten the women filming with arrest and acted aggressively towards her.
These incidents are not the exception in working-class and poor communities. The only thing unique is that the incidents were captured on film for the world to witness.
Such acts of violence are products of a racist system that actively denies working-class and poor communities the rights to dignity and humanity. The presence of cameras does not seem to deter the police in the slightest. In order for our communities to thrive, we must work towards the end of racism and capitalist exploitation.