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County investigates incident in which Swissvale resident was subdued

By Jim Mckinnon
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

SWISSVALE, Penn. - A man in Swissvale, who police said was out of control, was stunned with a Taser and later died while in custody.
Andre D. Thomas, 37, of Swissvale, was pronounced dead at 12:46 a.m. yesterday shortly after his encounter with Swissvale police on Hawthorne Avenue.
Allegheny County homicide detectives are investigating the incident, which occurred just before midnight Monday.
Neighborhood residents questioned the amount of force that officers used to subdue Mr. Thomas and said one officer punched Mr. Thomas in the head as he lay on the ground.
Mr. Thomas was identified yesterday by his parents, Dennis L. and Donna Thomas of Monroeville.
His father said authorities have not explained any details surrounding his son's death.
"I want to know what happened, what was the particular incident that caused my son's death," Dennis Thomas said after his consultation at the county medical examiner's office yesterday.
Swissvale police declined to comment, and all inquiries were referred to county police.
Swissvale officers responded to calls about a man acting erratically and trying to enter houses at about 11:45 p.m. Monday.
One resident on that block said Andre Thomas had knocked on some doors, yelling that someone was trying to shoot him.
James Morton, assistant superintendent of county police, said Mr. Thomas had been visiting with a friend in Braddock most of the evening. The friend, whom police declined to identify, was giving Mr. Thomas a ride home when Mr. Thomas jumped from the vehicle on Hawthorne.
Swissvale officers encountered Mr. Thomas in front of a residence at 2210 Hawthorne.
Superintendent Morton said when Mr. Thomas refused to comply with the policemen's orders, an officer used a Taser to subdue him.
Rose Adams, who was across the street, said she saw Mr. Thomas standing with the prongs of the Taser still attached to him when four Swissvale officers forced him to the ground and handcuffed him.
Ms. Adams said she saw one officer stomp on Mr. Thomas' upper back, holding his foot there while the man lay on the sidewalk with his head hanging over the curb. Another officer "reared back and punched him in the head with all his might," she said.
Mr. Thomas vomited. Then, for several minutes, he lay motionless, except for his leg twitching, Ms. Adams said.
Another nearby resident concurred with Ms. Adams that police made no move to check Mr. Thomas' vital signs for several minutes as at least four officers stood over his body.
County detectives are aware of the neighborhood accounts of the incident. They are investigating the claims, as well as the version relayed by Swissvale police, Superintendent Morton said.
He said paramedics treated Mr. Thomas inside the ambulance at the scene before proceeding to UPMC Braddock.
The medical examiner's office last night said that the cause of his death was pending results of an autopsy done yesterday.
The officers involved at the scene remain on full duty with the borough police force, Superintendent Morton said.
Tasers are used by more than 7,000 law enforcement agencies worldwide, including more than 120 in Allegheny County. A Taser gun shoots darts more than 20 feet on thin copper wires than transmit an electrical shock of 50,000 volts for several seconds. The shock immobilizes the subject for five to 15 seconds and is intended to be a nonlethal alternative to using a gun or a baton.
A report by Amnesty International in 2004 said that more than 70 people died after being hit by a stun gun since 2001. But medical examiners in all but five of those cases said other causes, such as heart disease or drugs, were the reason for death.
Mr. Thomas has a checkered past, with arrests that date to the early 1990s, according to court records. He pleaded guilty in 1992 to a string of drug charges including possession and possession with intent to deliver. In 1995, court records show, he pleaded guilty to burglary, recklessly endangering another person, simple assault, public drunkenness and criminal trespass. He also pleaded guilty in 2006 to drunken driving, fleeing to elude a police officer, resisting arrest and criminal mischief.

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