Berks County DA: No charges against officer in Taser death of suspect

Investigation finds Reading Police Officer discharged Taser lawfully and justified in the use of force.

READING, Pa. — There will be no charges filed against the police officer who used his Taser to subdue a suspect that later died.  Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams says that the actions of a Reading Police Officer on the afternoon of April 12, 2017 in the 700 block of Pear Street were a reasonable act of self-defense and a justifiable use of force against Kenneth Johnson.  The officer involved was justified in deploying his Taser against Johnson to ensure the safety of the officer and the necessary force to effect the arrest.

On April 12, 2017, at approximately 1:47 p.m., Reading Police Officers responded to two 911 phone calls relative to a domestic dispute in the 700 block of Pear Street.  The callers reported a domestic dispute in progress and one of the callers could hear a female crying.  A second caller stated that there was a female getting beat-up. At approximately 1:48 p.m., the first officer arrived on the scene and met with the victim of the domestic dispute.  The victim, a thirty-one year old female, was standing on the sidewalk wearing only her underpants and bra.  She reported that her boyfriend assaulted her and then he ran into their home upon police arrival.  The victim had visible bruises on one of her legs and her face was swollen.

The victim identified a male walking in an alley  as her boyfriend, Kenneth Johnson.  The officer approached Johnson and attempted to talk to him about the incident.  Johnson was uncooperative. When the officer tried to handcuff Johnson, he swung his arms, resisting the officer’s attempt.  Also, according to the report, Johnson threatened the officer.  The officer then deployed his department issued “Taser”, striking Johnson in the front center mass area of Johnson’s body, causing him to fall to the ground.

At approximately 1:50 p.m., additional back-up officers arrived on location.  While officers were waiting for the arrival of EMS, they performed CPR on Johnson who was in some sort of distress and unresponsive.  Within minutes EMS personnel arrived and transported Johnson to the Reading Hospital and Medical Center.

At approximately 2:46 p.m., the Emergency Room Physician pronounced Johnson deceased. On April 13, an autopsy was conducted by Dr. Supriya Kuruvilla, Chief of Autopsy and Forensic Services at the Reading Hospital. The cause of death to Kenneth Johnson was sudden cardiac arrest associated with conducted energy device discharges and contributing factors; mild hypertension cardiomyopathy and autonomic hyperarousal state.

The coroner ruled the manner of death as Homicide.

Pennsylvania law allows a police officer, or any person whom he or she has summoned or directed to assist him, need not retreat or desist from efforts to make a lawful arrest because of resistance or threatened resistance to the arrest.  He or she is justified in the use of any force which he or she believes to be necessary to effect the arrest and any force which he believes to defend himself or another from bodily harm while making an arrest, (PA Crimes Code Title 18, Section 508 (a)(1).

As such, District Attorney Adams applied Pennsylvania law in this case, which allowed the Reading Police Officer to use less than lethal force to arrest Kenneth Johnson.   “Less Lethal Weapons” (Taser) are designed to assist officers in enforcing the law, control dangerous or potentially dangerous situations, and preserving the individual officer’s life, other officers’ lives, the lives of innocent citizens, and the life of the offender.

District Attorney John T. Adams concluded that the officer was reasonable in his belief that the officer was in imminent danger of bodily injury due to Johnson’s actions.  Johnson’s refusal to comply with the officer’s commands, his physical resistance, and threatening behavior towards the officer forced the officer to deploy his Taser to ensure the officer’s safety and the necessary force to effect the arrest.

District Attorney Adams recognizes the sanctity of life above all other values.  It is unfortunate that a life was lost and our condolences go out to the Johnson family. However, we support the actions of the Reading Police Officer for protecting oneself and the victim of the domestic violence. Additionally, though unsuccessful, we commend the other assisting officers and EMS personnel in their actions taken to try and save the life of Kenneth Johnson.