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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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Public weighs in on police chief selection

Posted By on Tue, Jul 1, 2014 at 3:12 PM

Should Pittsburgh's next police chief come from within or outside the city's police bureau? Should he or she be an academic or have street experience? These were some of the questions posed at a public forum in the West End June 30.

"I have a sense of the skills they need to bring the police department in Pittsburgh to a higher level," said Stephen Bucar, the city's nominee for director of public safety. "But I want to make sure the community feels involved and empowered."

The next chief will be selected through the Talent City hiring process and screened by a panel of community members chosen for their experience with criminal justice, community outreach, and social services. Four of the panelists were at last night's meeting to hear from the public.

The majority of the group of approximately 30 individuals agreed candidates should be a current or former police officer, but disagreed on whether officers within the bureau should be considered. Other priorities included experience with youth violence, drug crimes, and gang violence; a commitment to increasing diversity on the police force; and a desire to maintain the bureau's residency requirement.

In addition to expressing their opinions on the qualities the next police chief should have, the group was also asked to express how they would work with the police bureau.

"We don't have the luxury of having an army of police officers who can be everywhere at anytime," Bucar said. "We need to leverage relationships with the community."

Members of the selection panel seemed to agree with the public on the qualities the next chief should have. Primarily, they said the next chief would have to work to repair the relationship between the police bureau and the community, which has deteriorated as a result of alleged accounts of police brutality and former chief Nathan Harper going to prison.

"I would look for someone who understands there needs to be some conciliation with the community," said Erin Dalton, deputy director, Allegheny County Department of Human Services. "There has been harm on both sides."

"I want to know that they've worked in urban communities," said David Harris, a professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

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.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Public comment sought on search for city’s next police chief

Posted By on Wed, Jun 11, 2014 at 10:26 AM

Mayor Bill Peduto introduces new City Public Safety Director Stephen Bucar

Mayor Bill Peduto wants to know what you want in a new police chief.

Peduto and Acting Public Saety Director Stephen Bucar announced this morning the process for soliciting the public’s input in the selection of a new chief. On Tuesday, the pair announced that they hoped to have the new chief in place by Labor Day.

A series of public meetings will be held starting June 26 in each of the city’s six police zones attended by both Bucar and Peduto. Public comment will also be sought online using Mindmixer — a website used by the city to promote community comment and engagement on civic issues.

“This is going to be a public outreach directly to the people of Pittsburgh asking them what they want in a police chief,” Peduto said in a statement that appears after the jump.

The department is currently being led by acting police chief Regina McDonald who took over after the resignation of Police Chief Nate Harper who has since pled guilty and been sentenced to 18 months in prison for the misappropriation of public funds.

The dates for the public hearings are below, although the locations are subject to change, according to a release:

Zone 2 - Thursday, June 26 @ 6 p.m.
Teamsters Local 249 (aka: Teamster's Temple)
4701 Butler St. - Lawrenceville
Pittsburgh, PA 15201

Zone 6 - Monday, June 30 @ 6 p.m.
Greenway Middle School*
1400 Crucible St. - Sheraden
Pittsburgh, PA 15205

Zone 5 - Tuesday, July 8 @ 6 p.m.
The Kingsley Association*
6435 Frankstown Ave. - Homewood
Pittsburgh, PA 15206

Zone 3 - Wednesday, July 16 @ 6 p.m.
South Hills Senior Residences
125 Ruth St. - Beltzhoover/Knoxville
Pittsburgh, PA 15211

Zone 4 - Tuesday, July 22 @ 6 p.m.
Jewish Community Center*
5738 Forbes Ave. - Squirrel Hill
Pittsburgh, PA 15217

Zone 1 - Thursday, July 24 @ 6 p.m.
Our Lady Queen of Peace Church*
907 Middle St. - Brighton Heights
Pittsburgh, PA 15212

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Nominee for public safety director ready to take on police bureau challenges

Posted By on Tue, Jun 10, 2014 at 12:41 PM

Mayor Bill Peduto introduces new City Public Safety Director Stephen Bucar

With Pittsburgh's former police chief serving time in prison, and a number of officers under investigation for police misconduct, the city's new Public Safety Director Stephen Bucar has a daunting job ahead of him. The former FBI special agent got to work yesterday and today Mayor Bill Peduto introduced him to the public.

"I’m going to be looking at all the problems in the entire public safety department, focusing on the police bureau," Bucar said at a press conference this morning.

Bucar was selected in mid-May after a more than six-month search. He is replacing former director Michael Huss, who served in the position since 2007.

Bucar said he's been following the controversy in the police bureau through the media and knew one of his first tasks would be to help restore faith in the department.

"Actually it’s what attracted me [to the position],” Bucar said. "I like a challenge. I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say this was a challenge.”

The new director's appointment is subject to approval from city council. His salary is $125,000.

Bucar is a a Washington County native with more than 30 years of law enforcement experience. Most recently, he worked in the FBI's Counterterroism Division in Washington D.C. and before that he was in charge of a branch within the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force.

"My memories and my roots to public safety go deep," Bucar said. "People don’t go into this to get rich. They do it because they feel a sense of duty."

As Bucar gets acclimated, the city is already moving forward with their search for a new police chief, a role Mayor Peduto sees as important to restoring the community's confidence in the department, and the police officers' confidence in their leadership.

"We have to raise the morale in the bureau," Peduto said. "It’s the lowest I’ve seen it."

Bucar said he wouldn't discount those within the bureau from the police chief position. The city says they hope to have a new chief selected as early as Labor Day.

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Friday, May 2, 2014

Crime statistics relevant in traffic stop that paralyzed teen, prosecutors say

Posted By on Fri, May 2, 2014 at 2:39 PM

Leon Ford Sr. (left) helps carry his son (middle)

If you're driving through East Liberty, Garfield, Bloomfield or anywhere else in Pittsburgh police Zone 5, officers are more justified in asking you to get out of your car and searching you for a gun than they would be in the city's safer neighborhoods.

That seems to be the crux of a motion filed this week by prosecutors who are arguing that during a routine traffic stop in Highland Park, police officers had reasonable suspicion to think the 19-year-old they pulled over had a gun partly because the stop took place in a "high-crime area" and in a "community [that] has a history of inhabitants who react violently to officers."

It's a strategy legal experts say is designed to get the jury to think more about the potential danger of the neighborhood than the facts of the incident itself, though the district attorney's office counters the statistics are relevant in understanding police policy.

The case involves Leon Ford Jr., shot and paralyzed from the waist down by Pittsburgh officer David Derbish, who claims he saw a bulge in Ford's pants that he thought might be a gun during the 2012 traffic stop. No gun was ever found.

There is some mystery in how the traffic stop was handled: officers Michael Kosko and Andrew Miller (who initiated the stop) doubted Ford's identity and ran his name only as "L. Ford"; none of the officers had working microphones; and Derbish jumped into the passenger side of Ford's car, despite bureau policy to the contrary.

The incident escalated after Ford was ordered to get out of the car because the officers thought he had a gun, Derbish testified at a preliminary hearing. In the midst of a struggle to get Ford out of the car, Derbish jumped into the passenger side of Ford's silver Infiniti while Miller tried to wrestle him out of the driver's side. Shortly thereafter, the car lurched forward and Derbish shot Ford several times, video footage of the incident shows. Ford was later charged with aggravated assault, escape, recklessly endangering another person, resisting arrest and two minor traffic offenses.

Ford's family has since brought a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and held several protests claiming the police systematically violate their own policies.

The prosecutors' motion tries to preempt claims that the officer's actions were unwarranted: "Should defense counsel seek to put in question the reasonableness of the police officers' actions," prosecutors wrote, "the Commonwealth would seek to introduce evidence of the numerous arrests for crimes involving firearms made in the vicinity of the encounter to explain why it was necessary to remove [Ford] from his vehicle to conduct a search for officer safety."

And while Duquesne law professor Wesley Oliver says Ford is facing an uphill battle against his criminal charges, there isn't much support for the prosecutor's argument that crime statistics are relevant, especially since the bulge in itself would have given officers the right to search Ford for a gun.

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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Fight over Miles verdict continues

Posted By on Wed, Apr 30, 2014 at 10:00 AM

Jordan Miles is asking a federal judge to change the verdict in his civil suit against three police officers. In March, a jury found that three Pittsburgh Police officers falsely arrested Miles, but did not find the officers liable of using excessive force against him.

"Because the jury has found that the Plaintiff was falsely arrested...the jury’s verdict means that the Plaintiff committed no actions which would give rise to a right in the Defendants to use any force whatsoever," according to a motion from Miles' attorney Joel Sansone. "Therefore, all force used by the Defendants in this matter was excessive."

The split verdict was the result of the second trial in the Miles suit against the three police officers — Michael Saldutte, David Sisak and Richard Ewing — he says failed to identify themselves before arresting and assaulting him while he was walking to his grandmother's house in January 2010. The officers maintain they identified themselves and approached Miles because they saw him lurking on the side of a house.

The motion asks Judge David Cercone to alter the verdict and to award damages to Miles on the excessive force claim. However, as an alternative, it requests a new trial on the excessive force claim on the basis the court erred in allowing certain evidence to be used in the trial while excluding other evidence.

"These errors include: the Court improperly permitted evidence of the presence of an automatic weapon magazine clip near the incident in question, causally observed by a lay person the day after the incident," according to the motion. "No such magazine has ever been produced by the defense; and the Court refused to permit evidence which would have negatively impacted the credibility of one or more of the Defendants, and would have positively impacted on the credibility of the Plaintiff in the form of testimony from a witness discovered by and proffered by the Plaintiff late in the Plaintiff’s case-in-chief at trial in this matter."

Meanwhile, attorneys for the three officers filed a motion of their own asking that the amount of money awarded to Miles be reduced from $119,016.75 to $8,415.05. According to their motion, $75,000 already paid to Miles by the city in a settlement should be subtracted from the award amount.

"Plaintiff would be unjustly enriched by $75,000 unless the verdict is molded by this amount, as the City has already paid the Plaintiff $75,000 in exchange for its agreement to indemnify the Defendant Officers," the motion says.

The officers lawyers also say the settlement should be reduced to reflect Miles' actual out of pocket medical costs. They believe the jury considered Miles' medical bills, which were partly paid by insurance, in determining the damages awarded to Miles.


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