A New Hope police officer was excused, but not justified, in shooting a man being held at the New Hope police station on March 3, Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub said Friday.
The officer believed at the time that he was firing his Taser, the D.A. said.
As first reported in the Free Press, Riling, 38 of Pipersville, had been arrested shortly before being taken to the station for allegedly trying to intimidate his ex-girlfriend into changing her previous testimony to police about his purported stalking and harassing behavior toward her.
“After careful consideration, I have determined that [the officer’s] shooting of arrestee Brian Riling on March 3, 2019, was neither justified, nor criminal, but was excused,” Weintraub wrote in a letter to New Hope Police Chief Michael Cummings.
Weintraub said the law excuses the shooting officer’s conduct from criminal prosecution because of his “honest but mistaken” belief he was deploying his Taser at the time he discharged his service weapon.
The officer was not named by the District Attorney, and has been on paid administrative leave from the date of the incident until his retirement from the police department since April 10.
In a video taken inside the station, Riling is seen entering a holding cell and removing his belt at the direction of an officer. A white, rectangular object that appeared to be a drug baggie fell from his waistband to the cell floor. The officer attempted to move Riling away from the object, and a struggle ensued, during which Riling threw the item he was stepping on into the cell’s toilet, according to Weintraub.
The officer who later shot Riling then entered the cell to assist his fellow officer, who was wrestling with Riling on a bench inside the cell. With his service firearm in his hand, the second officer yelled “Taser!” before shooting Riling in the torso. Riling then fell to the ground, and both officers left the cell. Riling is seen flushing the toilet as he slumps to the ground. Following the shooting, Riling was treated by other officers before being transported to St. Mary Medical Center where he was held in critical condition for several days.
Riling was released on $50,000 bail. He had been struck by a single bullet in the abdomen, and has suffered complications from the wound, according to his attorney.
“Given the totality of circumstances, the officer would have been justified in using his Taser to regain control of Riling inside the holding cell,” according to a statement from the D.A.’s office. “The officer had a reasonable belief the scuffle posed a danger to his fellow officer. The use of a firearm must be an officer’s last resort, and was not justified in this case. Because the officer believed he was deploying his Taser and not wielding his service firearm, he did not possess the criminal mental state required to be guilty of a crime under state law.”
Weintraub’s noted that, “Section 304 of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code (Title 18) states that a person has a defense to a criminal charge if he makes a mistake as a matter of fact for which there is a reasonable explanation or excuse. Investigation of the incident further revealed the officer wore his Taser on his right side, in front of his firearm, in violation of police department policies. Policy dictates officers should wear their Tasers on their non-dominant side, in what is known as a cross-draw position. This violation of policy, however, does not constitute a violation of law.”
Incidents when a police officer accidentally fires his/her handgun when intending to use their Taser are not common, occurring at a rate of less than one per year nationally. Contributing factors can be the type and frequency of Taser training the officer received, how the weapon was carried, and the stress involved in a potentially rapidly-evolving incident.
Many law enforcement officers carry their Taser on their non-dominant side, e.g. on the left side of their duty belt or left leg if right-handed, to help differentiate it from their handgun. Tasers can be black, yellow, or both, and weigh less than a Glock 17, the standard issue weapon for many police departments, including New Hope. The grips feel different to users, and the Taser has an LED-lit control panel. Both weapons can utilize a laser for sighting.
In making his decision, Weintraub considered “the officer’s decades of exemplary service to the citizens of New Hope as evidenced by dozens of commendations and letters, as compared to relatively few minor historical infractions on his service record.”