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Subduing unruly fans is an inexact science

Some raise issue of excessive use of force after most recent incident, in which officer used a Taser on a teen in outfield at Phillies game. However, safety of players and others is primary concern.

May 04, 2010|By Sam Farmer

There is a fine line between comedy and catastrophe when an overzealous — and, frequently, inebriated — spectator hops a barrier at a sporting event and runs onto the field of play.

It has happened at Super Bowls and soccer games, tennis matches and title fights, incidents ranging from the absurd (a Cincinnati Bengals fan swiping the football from Brett Favre) to the horrifying (a crazed spectator stabbing Monica Seles in the back during a 1993 tennis match in Hamburg, Germany).

The latest fan-gone-wild spectacle happened Monday in Philadelphia, when a police officer used a Taser on a 17-year-old Phillies fan in the outfield at Citizens Bank Park, sparking a debate over how much is too much when it comes to subduing field crashers.

The Phillies say they plan to talk with police about whether stun guns should be used in similar situations. Was it excessive force or the appropriate handling of a nitwit? And Philadelphia police officials are reviewing whether their officers should be wrangling fans or if that should be up to team security.

"As far as making an arrest, it's within our policy that when someone resists and attempts to elude arrest, and they are committing a crime, using the Taser to control them is something we allow," police spokesman Lt. Frank Vanore said.

Not everyone agrees with that policy. Merrick Bobb, executive director of a Los Angeles-based nonprofit police oversight group called the Police Assessment Resource Center, said mild resistance usually doesn't justify the use of a Taser.

"Usually the resistance has to threaten some harm to the officer in order to justify the use of a Taser," Bobb told the Associated Press.

Last year, the American Medical Assn.'s Council on Science and Public Health reviewed the physiological effects of Tasers and deaths after Taser shocks by police. Based on information gathered from 1985 to March 2009, the study concluded that stun guns are used too frequently and "may contribute to the death of suspects directly or indirectly."

Mary Catherine Roper, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia, echoed that, telling the AP she didn't understand why the officer used a Taser.

"How long can he really run around out there?" Roper said of the fan. "In this situation, he's not dangerous, he's not getting away."

In the incident in question, the teen hopped onto the field in the eighth inning of a game against St. Louis, ran around the outfield waving a white towel, dodging security personnel. A police officer chased him for about 30 seconds before using the stun gun on him, causing the teen to fall forward and slide face-first onto the grass. He stayed down for about 30 seconds before he stood and was led off the field.

The teen is described by his father as a good, college-bound student who was neither drinking nor on drugs. He is being charged with defiant trespass, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

"In this day and age, you don't know what people are going to do," Vanore said. "You have players, you have the public, and when you see somebody running across and it's obvious they don't belong there, and the officer's paying attention to make sure that everyone's OK.

"In hindsight, it's a 17-year-old kid just acting stupid. But we don't know that at the time."

Pat Courtney, a spokesman for Major League Baseball, said security issues are dealt with at a team level, and that MLB is reserving comment until Philadelphia police have completed their investigation.

Likewise, the NFL's policy is that individual clubs provide on-field security and that if any unauthorized person enters the playing field, security is required to remove that person immediately.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said by e-mail that general guidelines call for "stadium sideline security to surround the fan, escort him off the field and hand him off to law enforcement officials. Tasing is not part of our protocol."

Things don't always work that smoothly. In 2005, an unruly Browns fan ran onto the field in Cleveland during the fourth quarter of a 41-0 loss to Pittsburgh. He made the mistake of running toward the Steelers' bench, where he was intercepted by linebacker James Harrison, who picked him up and delivered a pro-wrestling-style body slam. He then held the man on the ground until police handcuffed him and led him away.

"I basically took him down because when he first came out, he took off after 'V' [running back Verron Hayes], then he was backing up near our sideline," Harrison said at the time. "I don't know if he had anything on him or whatever. So I felt like, with his back to me, I could take him down without risking injury to myself or my teammates and hold him there until the proper authorities came."

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