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the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Andre Thomas Is Dead. Why?

Too bad Andre Thomas of Swissvale is dead. He probably would have disputed the Allegheny County medical examiner's report that his death was not the result of excessive force by the Swissvale police.But what would he know? Andre Thomas was just another unarmed 37-year-old civilian acting "erratically" when he encountered the police for the last time late Monday night. He died early Tuesday morning.

After he was shot with a Taser and reportedly kicked and punched while in handcuffs, Mr. Thomas' treatment might be within the acceptable range of brutality for Swissvale. Whether that is a standard that should shock the conscience of citizens throughout Western Pennsylvania is another question.

As Andre Thomas stared into the faces of his assailants, did he see an inkling of compassion in their eyes -- or contempt? Were his last thoughts of the 2-year-old daughter he'd never see again?

Did the autopsy report do justice to the blood and vomit that coagulated around his mouth or the excruciating pain that wracked his body? Will the toxicology report come back clean -- or tell a story of "excited delirium" induced by cocaine or other drugs, as Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. suggested yesterday?

"There was no evidence in general, no evidence of excessive force being used," Dr. Karl Williams of the Allegheny County medical examiner's office told a reporter. Dr. Williams also refused to define "excessive force" or shed light on other aspects of the autopsy.

That's why the circumstances surrounding the death of Andre Thomas still begs the question -- why is he dead?

The nearly 20 protesters who marched up Braddock Avenue to the Swissvale Borough Building on Wednesday evening want an answer.

"I knew the guy they killed," said Sabrina Williams, 40, a Swissvale resident who cheered the protesters as they passed her on the sidewalk. "I've had my own run-in [with the cops]," she told me. "That's why I'm scared to call them about anything."

Fellow Swissvale residents Dametria Reed, 27, and Octavia McNeill, 19, echoed Ms. Williams' sentiments. Still none were eager to join the marchers, citing scheduling conflicts and possible police retaliation.

Chanting "prosecute the cops / the killing must stop," the group of local activists could barely contain their indignation as they confronted glowering Swissvale police outside the station.

A 31-year-old Swissvale resident who would only give his name as Charles was interviewed in front of the borough building by television crews eager to get his take on life in what one protester called a "police state."

"This is why I'm here," Charles said, pointing to his young son clutching his hand. "I can't keep ducking and being afraid when I know [the police] were wrong."

"We think it would be appropriate if the cops responsible [for Mr. Thomas' death] were taken off the street pending the investigation," said Celeste Taylor of Point Breeze, the march's organizer.

A phalanx of Swissvale officers -- some who may have been involved in Mr. Thomas' death -- kept a respectful distance from the protesters and the television cameras.

With the exception of Lt. Matt Lisovich, 42, a 19-year veteran of the Swissvale force, all refused to comment. "It's America," Mr. Lisovich said to me, hunching heavily muscled shoulders. "They have a right to protest -- as long as they do it lawfully."

Augmented by cops from Braddock Hills and Edgewood, the police outnumbered the protesters.

Many Swissvale cops look like they spend more than their fair share of time in the gym. Even those with paunches are tall and imposing. Those who glared at the protesters looked like they could handle themselves against an unarmed man acting "erratically."

If he was merely acting strangely, couldn't the cops have used pepper spray or a baton to subdue him instead of pumping 50,000 volts into his body? What menace did Mr. Thomas present to the public or to the cops to make the use of a Taser a reasonable option?

Given the controversial and deadly track record of Tasers, does it make sense for cops to use them when less potentially lethal methods are available? Whatever happened to the mandate "To protect and to serve"?

At the Swissvale Borough Council meeting after Wednesday's protest, a diminutive young woman approached the microphone during the comment period. She said she lived on street where Mr. Thomas encountered police and witnessed the incident. She was one of the people who called police in the first place.

"We called the cops to get help for him," the woman said, countering reports that the neighbors felt threatened by his behavior. "He wasn't aggressive."

Yesterday, District Attorney Zappala said other witnesses had come forward to say the police did nothing more than stun Mr. Thomas three times with a Taser and handcuff him.

The woman at the meeting asked council President David Petrarca why Andre Thomas had to die.

It was a good question. Mr. Petrarca had no comment. Nobody -- not the cops or the protesters -- had a clue.

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Tony Norman

Tony Norman

Tony Norman is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. He was once the Post-Gazette’s pop music/pop culture critic and appeared as an expert on cultural issues on local radio talk shows and television programs. In 1996, he began writing an award-winning general interest column, which, he says, rejuvenated his enthusiasm for the kind of journalism that makes a difference.

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