Video: Apparent suicide follows NYPD Taser scandal

updated 10/2/2008 11:13:32 AM ET 2008-10-02T15:13:32

The man was naked, teetering on a building ledge and jabbing at police with an 8-foot-long fluorescent light bulb as a crowd gathered below.

Lt. Michael Pigott responded by ordering an officer to fire a stun gun at the man, who froze and plunged headfirst to his death in a scene captured on amateur video and replayed frequently on the Internet.

The officer was remorseful and distraught. He apologized and sought the family's forgiveness. Then he went to his unit's headquarters Thursday morning and fatally shot himself, just hours before the family laid the victim to rest.

"The lieutenant was deeply distraught and extremely remorseful over the death of Iman Morales in Brooklyn last week," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "Sadly, his death just compounds the tragedy of the loss of Mr. Morales."

Questions about Taser use
The suicide marks another tragic turn in a case that has raised questions about the use of Tasers by the nation's largest police force.

Thousands of police sergeants began carrying Tasers on their belts this year after the NYPD expanded use of the weapons, a trend that has been playing out in police departments across the country in recent years. The pistol-shaped weapons fire barbs up to 35 feet and deliver powerful shocks to immobilize people.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has acknowledged that the weapon is controversial, and some organizations are strongly opposed to police use of Tasers — fearful that the guns can be abused without clear guidelines.

Police said the use of the stun gun in the death of Morales appeared to violate department guidelines, which explicitly bar their use "in situations where the subject may fall from an elevated surface." Marchesona also was reassigned to desk duty but was not stripped of his gun and badge.

Pigott learned firsthand the dangers of Tasers after he was called to a Brooklyn apartment building on the night of Sept. 24.

Witnesses and neighbors said Morales grew increasingly agitated and threatened to kill himself, leading his mother to call 911. When police arrived, Morales fled naked out the window of his third-floor apartment to the fire escape. He tried to get into an apartment on the floor above, and then climbed down until he reached a ledge over a shuttered storefront, where he started jabbing at officers with the light bulb.

Ordered the Taser to be fired
Pigott had to make a decision about what to do. He ordered Officer Nicholas Marchesona to fire the Taser.

The 5,000-volt shock immobilized the 35-year-old Morales, who then toppled from his perch. He plunged 10 feet to the ground and died. Officers had radioed for an inflatable bag as the incident unfolded, but it had not yet arrived when Morales fell.

Authorities believe the fall killed Morales, but an autopsy was inconclusive.

After the episode, Kelly ordered refresher training for the NYPD's emergency services unit on how to deal with the mentally ill and appointed a new commander of the unit.

Pigott was stripped of his gun and badge and assigned to a job with the department's motor vehicle fleet — a huge demotion for a 21-year veteran who was assigned to such an elite team. The Brooklyn district attorney's office and the police department investigated.

Pigott apologized for what happened, telling the Long Island newspaper Newsday that he was "truly sorry."

Sometime before 6 a.m. Thursday, the lieutenant went to the locker room at his unit's headquarters by himself and found a weapon that was not his. The married father of two sons and a daughter shot himself in the head on his 46th birthday.

About four hours later, the Morales family gathered at a church in Manhattan for their relative's funeral.

"This is horrible," said Morales' aunt, Ann DeJesus Negron. "I mean, for me personally, I know it's horrible because I would have never wished this on anyone, and we never wanted, of course, this for Iman, and we would never wanted this to happen to the officer at all, or anybody at all."

Mistake caught on camera
The episode also cast the spotlight on the NYPD's emergency services unit, a team of officers who deal with dozens of hostile scenarios every day, such as hostage situations, suicidal suspects, building collapses and hazardous materials threats.

"These guys are the best of the best, they really are," said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "When people need help, they call the police, and when police need help, the call the ESU."

O'Donnell said that even a mistake caught on camera shouldn't take away from what the unit and the officers there do on a daily basis.

"You have a guy who made a mistake where there's no allegation of malice or ill will," he said. "And what happened after he made a mistake? He was named in the paper, shamed in the paper, suspended, and there was a strong story line that he could be criminal suspect."

NYPD officers are allowed to use Tasers if they believe emotionally disturbed people are a danger to themselves or to others. The department uses stun guns about 300 times on average. So far this year, stun guns have been used 180 times.

The department has used Tasers since 1984, but policy previously called for sergeants to store the stun guns in their trunks while patrolling.

"It is worth remembering that our police officers are not super men, but rather flesh-and-blood human beings who deal with life-and-death situations that most of us cannot even imagine on a daily basis," said Thomas Sullivan of Lieutenants Benevolent Association. "They deserve a kind thought and the benefit of the doubt for all the good that they try to do, especially when things do not work out exactly as we would have hoped for."

Pigott was a licensed pilot and a motor boat operator. He had worked as a lieutenant in ESU since 2002, and previously served as a lieutenant in a Brooklyn precinct and as a sergeant in precincts that covered Queens neighborhoods.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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