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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

No announcements planned after Peduto promises swift investigation of Pride altercation

Posted By on Wed, Jul 16, 2014 at 11:04 AM

The day after a video surfaced that showed 19-year Ariel Lawther being dragged by the neck from a crowd of protestors at Pride by a Pittsburgh police officer before being struck several times, mayor Bill Peduto promised a swift investigation.

"We will work diligently to make sure that justice is not delayed and that we will be able to proceed over the next month to find out exactly what happened, and to take the proper action," he said at a June 16 press conference.

But a month later, the investigation appears to continue — and there are no scheduled announcements from the mayor's office that might reveal their assessment of what happened.


"We’re aware of that commitment," says Tim McNulty, the mayor's spokesman. "The investigation is ongoing. The mayor promised to have an investigation done as quickly and fairly as possible and that’s what the city’s doing.”

Peduto's promise of a 30-day investigation from the Office of Municipal Investigations — the entity that investigations potential misconduct among city employees — raised some questions among those who are familiar with that investigative process.

Citizen Police Review Board executive director Elizabeth Pittinger notes that the time it takes to complete an investigation is "fact specific."

"There was an awful lot of information available on that incident between video and eyewitnesses," she says, "Can they do it 30? Maybe not — I don’t know." OMI typically has 120 days to conduct its investigation, Pittinger added.

McNulty declined to comment further on why the mayor announced a 30-day timeline or whether there was any concern that asking for a speedy investigation could be grounds for overturning potential discipline against officer Souroth Chatterji down the road.

Chatterji was placed on desk duty in the department's warrant office following the incident for 30 days, which lapsed today. However, department spokesperson Sonya Toler tells City Paper that Chatterji will remain off of patrol until the investigation is resolved.

Bryan Campbell, a police union attorney who represents Chatterji, echoed that a 30-day timeline may not be unreasonable, "but the question gets to be: Is that enough time to do a full and fair investigation? You don’t want someone not following-up because they have a deadline."

Campbell says Chatterji has not yet been interviewed by OMI investigators, noting that the interview of the officer in question happens once "they talk to all the witnesses and gather all the evidence."

Campbell added that a new video obtained by OMI, provided by PNC Bank across the street, will likely confirm Chatterji's account that he was punched and kicked by Lawther and that force was necessary to subdue her.

"Here’s a woman who attempts to punch an officer. He strikes her twice in the stomach — he didn’t hit her in the head. That’s acceptable force,” he says.

Gary Van Horn, board president and executive director of the Delta Foundation, says he's been in contact with the district attorney's office and city officials and is asking for better training of officers when dealing with minority populations, including the LGBT community.

“There’s a huge training component that we’re going to advocate for," he says, "and some additional presence of police officers,” at events like Pride. He says his conversations with city officials, including the mayor, have been about instituting "best practices" for working with minority communities.

Asked whether he is disappointed that the city will likely not meet its 30-day promise, he says, "30 days was a pretty aggressive time frame. At the end of the day we want to make sure there’s a full investigation and figure out what lessons are learned so we can prevent anything like this from happening again."

Lawther's attorney did not return a call seeking comment; she's facing a felony aggravated assault charge and charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Her preliminary hearing has been postponed until August 11, online court records show. She is also awaiting a preliminary hearing scheduled for July 22 on unrelated misdemeanor assault charges filed November of last year.

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