The use of a police dog and other force against a Vineland, N.J., man who died in police custody Tuesday has stirred outrage from an activist and family members, while a lawyer representing the officers involved says their actions helped avoid a shooting.

Phillip White, 32, was handcuffed and became unresponsive in an ambulance after Vineland police responded to a report of a disorderly person around 11 a.m. in the 100 block of Grape Street. Police reported that White was having "respiratory distress" when they called for medical assistance.

Stuart Alterman, an attorney hired by the police union to represent the officers, said Thursday that White was banging on a police cruiser and going "berserk."

Alterman said that White tried with both hands to pull one of the officers' weapons from a holster, and that he attempted to disable a safety mechanism that would prevent the gun from coming out.

A canine officer who responded to the scene released a dog on White, which caused him to let go of the officer's weapon, Alterman said.

"The deployment of the canine alleviated the necessity to employ lethal force," Alterman said. He added that "the Vineland police officers involved acted in a most professional and restrained fashion when dealing with an individual really going berserk, and attempting to pull one of the officer's guns away."

The officers have not been identified.

Walter Hudson, chairman of the Salem County-based civil rights group National Awareness Alliance, said he spoke to witnesses who alleged that police were punching and beating White in addition to using a canine.

"They never saw at any point Phillip reach for a gun," Hudson said. "It was more of the officers being the aggressor."

Alterman called the allegations that police beat White "absurd."

"Nobody was beating Mr. White," Alterman said. "The officers were using a level of force reasonable and necessary to protect themselves and others."

He declined to elaborate on that level of force.

Hudson, who said he spoke to White's family the day of the incident, said White's mother, father, and younger brother were distraught.

"The emotions are real high right now, which is understandable," he said.

Hudson said the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office, which is investigating White's death and the officers' actions, has provided White's family with "no answers."

Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said Thursday that "the matter is under investigation" and that the results of an autopsy were pending. She declined to comment further.

White's incident is the second fatality in three months involving police in Cumberland County.

In December in Bridgeton, 13 miles west of Vineland, Jerame Reid, 36, was shot and killed by police during a traffic stop. Bridgeton police said Reid, a passenger in the stopped car, was reaching for a gun.

Hudson organized several protests after the Dec. 30 incident. He said that Reid's hands were up and that Reid was unarmed when police shot him.

The investigation by the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office into Reid's death remains ongoing.

mboren@phillynews.com

856-779-3829 @borenmc