Friday, September 5, 2014

City says officer involved in Pride arrest did not use excessive force

Posted By on Fri, Sep 5, 2014 at 4:38 PM

The city announced this afternoon that officer Souroth Chatterji did not use excessive force when he arrested 19-year-old Ariel Lawther at a June 15 PrideFest event.

The incident grew widespread attention after a video surfaced which showed Chatterji pulling Lawther out of a crowd by the hair and neck just before punching her several times.

"A final report by the Office of Municipal Investigations, including an analysis completed by an independent consultant, has determined that the officer involved did not use excessive force," city solicitor Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge wrote in a statement. "The evidence may not always reveal what one video, one photograph, or one statement might reveal alone."

Chatterji is back on duty, according to the statement.

She wrote that the city asked "an outside agency" to conduct a review of the incident and that they "arrived at the same conclusion."

"It will be city policy from this point forward to seek third-party analysis in all excessive force investigations, just as we did in this case," Sanchez-Ridge wrote. She added that the incident will prompt a review of training procedures once Cameron McLay — who Mayor Bill Peduto announced earlier this week would become the city's permanent police chief — takes his post.

The announcement comes nearly two months after a self-imposed deadline Peduto appeared to set for himself to investigate the incident.

The full press release is here.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Peduto says investigation on Pride incident is 'ongoing,' timeline still unclear

Posted By on Thu, Jul 17, 2014 at 3:22 PM

In a statement released this afternoon, mayor Bill Peduto acknowledged the city is still investigating an incident last month in which a Pittsburgh police officer punched and arrested a Pride attendee.

As City Paper reported yesterday, the mayor seemed to promise some assessment of the incident within a month of a July 16 press conference. The mayor's statement confirms the investigation is ongoing, but doesn't address why he established a 30-day timeline in the first place, or when the results of the investigation should be expected.

Peduto spokesman Tim McNulty declined to comment on the deadline the mayor established, saying only that the mayor wants a "thorough" investigation. (The Office of Municipal Investigations is required to complete its investigation within 120 days, according to its own rules, McNulty says.)

Here's Peduto's statement in full:

Last month I called for an investigation of an arrest at the June 15 Pride Fest parade and said the city ‘will not delay this investigation, but I will not make any judgement until such time that OMI has had the opportunity to fully investigate.’

At this time, the investigation has progressed and is ongoing. The officer who is the subject of the investigation will remain off-patrol until OMI has completed their work.

I and my administration are committed to justice and fairness and we will ensure a complete and thorough investigation so that all parties may receive fair treatment from the City of Pittsburgh.

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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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Fitzgerald statement on one-year extension of same-sex partner benefits

Posted By on Wed, Jul 2, 2014 at 10:29 AM

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald issued the following statement regarding his decision to extend same-sex benefits for 11 existing county employees. New hires, however,"will be required to follow the same policy regarding how and when benefits are offered to partners and families.”

As reported in this week's issue, the earlier deadline caused consternation among LGBT advocates, who felt it didn't allow employees enough time to make wedding or other arrangements.

Fitzgerald Statement on Same Sex Benefits Offered by Allegheny County

PITTSBURGH — Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald issued the following statement today regarding same sex benefits offered by Allegheny County:

“One of my first official actions as County Executive was to offer same sex benefits to our employees — a fact of which I am very proud. Because same sex couples did not have the same option to formalize their relationship through marriage as opposite sex couples did, offering these benefits put those employees and their families on equal footing with their fellow employees.

“Now that same sex marriage is legal in Pennsylvania, I believe that it is important to continue to keep our employees on equal footing and that means requiring proof of marriage for coverage of a spouse, partner and/or family members.

“The July 31, 2014 date that was originally set is too aggressive. Working through the Human Resources Department, the eleven employees currently receiving same sex partner benefits will have until June 30, 2015 to make the personal decision regarding whether to marry and formalize their relationship. All new county employees, however, will be required to follow the same policy regarding how and when benefits are offered to partners and families.”

BREAKING: County to extend same-sex benefits by one year

Posted By on Wed, Jul 2, 2014 at 9:45 AM

Post by Chris Potter

A short time ago, Allegheny County officials confirmed that the county intends to continue offering domestic-partner benefits to same-sex employees and their partners through June 30, 2015.

The move, a formal announcement of which is due later this morning, extends the benefit one year beyond a June 30 termination date previously announced by the county. That termination date had been set in the wake of a federal court ruling in May that struck down the Pennsylvania law prohibiting same-sex marriage.

As reported in this week's issue, the earlier deadline caused consternation among LGBT advocates, who felt it didn't allow employees enough time to make wedding or other arrangements.

We'll have more on this story as it develops today.

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Witnesses offer conflicting versions of Pride altercation

Posted By on Mon, Jun 16, 2014 at 4:31 PM

Witnesses to an altercation between rookie Pittsburgh police officer Souroth Chatterji and 19-year-old Ariel Lawther at Delta Foundation's annual Pride festival yesterday offered conflicting accounts of how Lawther wound up being dragged from the crowd by Chatterji by the neck and hair, just before he struck her several times and arrested her.

According to the officer's version of events, spelled out in a criminal complaint supporting charges against Lawther, the girl was in a confrontation with Eric Moure, a 36-year-old protesting Delta Foundation's Pride Festival.

Moure confirms that he had been talking and arguing with Lawther near 6th St. and Penn Ave. for about an hour. "We were talking and she was getting upset by the things we were saying," says Moure, adding he was "preaching the gospel" with three other "Christian brothers" throughout the day.

"She reached across and shoved me and that’s when the officer came in and pulled her away," Moure says. "We know our message won’t be received well by most, [but] I never put my hands on her ever — that’s our rule of thumb."

Moure says the shove is what prompted Chatterji to intervene. "When [Chatterji] grabbed her, it enraged her even further and she began resisting — swinging her fist, hitting him."

That version of events largely corresponds to the account in Chatterji's criminal complaint. As Chatterji tried to break up Lawther and Moure, the officer wrote in the complaint, Lawther "began to push and strike me in the chest with her hands and groin area with her legs."

"In a rapidly evolving and tenuous situation I grabbed Lawther by the head and swung her out of the crowd," Chatterji wrote, adding that Lawther continued to strike him — and that he was hit by others in the crowd.

"To defuse the situation quickly before I was attacked by the crowd once more," Chatterji wrote, "I punched Lawther in the left abdomen several times to distract her enough so I could handcuff her."

Two other witnesses — Autumn Huntera and Sierra Kyle — dispute that version of events, though they agree that things got heated between Lawther and Moure. Kyle and Huntera helped spread their friend's video of the incident on social media, though they say they did not know Lawther beforehand.

"The protesters were saying she was going to Hell because she’s a lesbian," Huntera says. While a small group of Pride participants were arguing with Moure's band, she says, "[Lawther] was more into the argument than most people were."

Huntera says Lawther didn't shove Moure: Instead, she "stepped closer because they were both screaming at each other."

That step seemed to prompt Chatterji to intervene, Huntera says. "He grabs her by the back of her neck [...] And then he pulled her backwards off the sidewalk and she fell down because of it. And he picked her up by her hair and then he said to her, 'Do you want me to hit you?' And when she didn’t respond, he started punching her in the stomach [...] she didn’t resist arrest at all."

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Peduto promises swift investigation of Pride altercation

Posted By on Mon, Jun 16, 2014 at 1:39 PM

In a press conference that lasted just a few minutes, mayor Bill Peduto promised a thorough and speedy investigation of altercation involving a Pride attendee and Pittsburgh police officer.

A 16-second video appears to show officer Souroth Chatterji dragging 19-year-old Ariel Lawther by the neck from a crowd of people, striking her several times.

"We will work diligently to make sure that justice is not delayed," Peduto said, noting the officer has been suspended from regular duties and assigned to the warrant office for 30 days while the investigation continues.

Asked whether he thought the video shows excessive force, Peduto said he couldn't reach any conclusions about what happened until more evidence surfaces.

"We’re going to be asking for additional video. There should be an opportunity for us to see the entire incident, not just that one clip, to find out what happened," Peduto said. "There are professional standards on the escalation of force and we want to make sure what happened falls within the standards and not rush to judgement."

The incident began after a confrontation between Lawther, of Harmony, and anti-gay protesters who had gathered to protest the Delta Foundation's annual LGBT pride festival, Peduto said.

According to a criminal complaint, Chatterji saw Lawther hitting Eric Moure near 6th St. and Liberty Ave Sunday afternoon. As he tried to break them up, Lawther "began to push and strike me in the chest with her hands and groin area with her legs," Chatterji wrote in the complaint.

"In a rapidly evolving and tenuous situation I grabbed Lawther by the head and swung her out of the crowd," Chatterji wrote, adding that Lawther continued to strike him — and that he was hit by others in the crowd.

"To diffuse the sutation quickly before I was attacked by the crowd once more," Chatterji wrote, "I punched Lawther in the left abdomen several times to distract her enough so I could handcuff her."

Lawther then apologized to Chatterji, saying "I did not see you were a cop," according to the complaint.

Chatterji wrote that Lawther had been warned earlier not to be "so physically offensive" toward (reportedly anti-gay demonstrators) standing on the corner.

Lawther is charged with aggravated assault, which is a first-degree felony. She's also charged with simple assault, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, all misdemeanors.

Court records show she was released from the Allegheny County Jail today after posting $5,000 bond.

The Delta Foundation responded to the announcement of an investigation: "We are pleased that Mayor Bill Peduto has issued a full investigation into the matter that occurred between the City of Pittsburgh Police officer and Ariel Lawther," according to a press release.

The organization has contacted U.S. Attorney David Hickton's office "to also inform them of the incident and launch a potential hate crime investigation."

Video surfaces of altercation between police officer and Pride attendee

Posted By on Mon, Jun 16, 2014 at 10:16 AM

A video is making the rounds on social media that appears to show a Pittsburgh police officer in an altercation with an attendee of Pride Pittsburgh, the Delta Foundation's annual LGBT pride festival.

The incident reportedly took place near a corner where there were anti-gay protesters throughout the afternoon.

The Delta Foundation's Christine Bryan says the organization has been in contact with authorities throughout the night and "we’re working closely with everyone right now [...] Obviously we’re extremely concerned about it."

Representatives from the mayor's office, Citizen Police Review Board and Public Safety Department did not immediately return calls seeking comment — though a press conference has been called for 11:45 A.M. with a slew of top city officials: mayor Bill Peduto, acting police chief Regina McDonald, public safety director Stephen Bucar, Office of Municipal Investigations director Deborah Walker and city solicitor Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge.

We'll provide updates as more information becomes available.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Peduto to officiate group wedding for LGBT couples

Posted By on Tue, May 27, 2014 at 2:40 PM

Hot off the presses from Mayor Bill Peduto's office, an invitation for LGBT couples to take part in the first -ever wedding ceremony prepared by the relatively new mayor. Same-sex marriage came to be in Pennsylvania last week thanks to a ruling from U.S. District Judge John Jones.

The following is the official announcement of the ceremony — which will happen June 15 during Pittsburgh PrideFest — from Peduto's office:

Mayor William Peduto announced today that he will officiate a group marriage ceremony in mid-June for LGBT couples given marriage rights by a federal court decision last week.

The Mayor will officiate the ceremony in Triangle Park, adjacent to the Fairmont Pittsburgh, during Pittsburgh PrideFest activities on June 15. Following the 2 p.m. ceremony, Fairmont Pittsburgh will host a cocktail and hors d’oeuvre reception for couples, their families and friends in the hotel’s lobby.

“I said last week I would be thrilled to make the marriage of an LGBT couple the first I officiate as Mayor, and being able to share that moment with many others should make for an even more joyous celebration,” Mayor Peduto said.
Several couples have already contacted the Mayor’s Office to be a part of a ceremony and space is limited to 20 couples. Those interested in participating may contact Communications Manager Tim McNulty.

On May 20 Federal Judge John E. Jones III ruled Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriages to be unconstitutional. “By virtue of this ruling, same-sex couples who seek to marry in Pennsylvania may do so, and already married same-sex couples will be recognized as such in the Commonwealth,” the judge wrote.

Couples were able to start applying for marriage licenses last week, many of which could be picked up starting today at the Allegheny County Marriage License Bureau. Gov. Tom Corbett has announced he will not appeal the judge’s decision.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

First same-sex couple weds in Allegheny County

Posted By on Wed, May 21, 2014 at 4:00 PM

Jess Garrity, right, and Pamela VanHaitsma became the first same-sex couple to be legally married in Allegheny County
  • Photo by Alex Zimmerman
  • Jess Garrity, right, and Pamela VanHaitsma became the first same-sex couple to be legally married in Allegheny County

When Jess Garrity and Pamela VanHaitsma appeared at the City-County building this morning, an hour before the Marriage License Bureau opened, they thought there would certainly be a crowd of other same-sex couples clamoring to apply for marriage licenses.

"We didn't plan to be first in line," VanHaitsma, 35, says.

But by days' end, not only were they the first same-sex couple to show up in person to apply for a marriage license, they stood in front of judge Hugh McGough — all three fighting back tears — and became what is likely to be the first same-sex couple wed in Allegheny County whose marriage will be recognized by the state.

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