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Police Review Board gains citizen attention again 

click to enlarge HEATHER MULL

Citizen Police Review Board meetings can be lonesome affairs. At monthly meetings, the board and staff review citizens' complaints about police interactions and make disciplinary recommendations to the police chief and mayor. For months at a time, CPRB meetings have been held with little or no audience, despite being open to the public.

But at a Sept. 18 CPRB hearing on an array of police misconduct issues, council chambers were jammed with people outraged about one particular case and looking for answers. And CPRB meetings have been well attended ever since.

During the three-hour hearing, the crowd of nearly 80 was there to rally around Pamela Lawton, prompted by a Sept. 15 article in the New Pittsburgh Courier and barrages of e-mails and phone calls. During an Aug. 26 traffic stop at Kentucky and Negley avenues for an expired inspection sticker on Lawton's car, police officer Eric Tatsuko allegedly pulled a gun on the unarmed Lawton, reportedly pointing it at her 7-year-old daughter. Lawton's attorney, Joseph K. Williams, contends that Tatsuko threatened to "blow [her daughter's] brains out." Because Lawton's insurance and registration weren't current, her car was towed and she was cited. Weeks after the incident, Lawton received another citation for disorderly conduct.

Both the CPRB and the Office of Municipal Investigations -- the city's internal police-review office -- are investigating the incident after Lawton filed complaints, but neither would discuss specifics of current investigations. Pittsburgh police spokesperson Tammy Ewin also declined comment, but did confirm that Tatsuko is still working, with no sanctions against him.

Now anger and frustration over the incident have galvanized an informal coalition to stand behind Lawton and, participants hope, to maintain the momentum created by the incident.

"You'll never again see [only] one person at these meetings," says Paradise Gray, the Wilkinsburg hip-hop artist and community activist whose e-mail list and MySpace page informed many of those in attendance about the CPRB meetings. He has since spoken at several of them. "It's bridging gaps," he says. "Christians, Muslims, Jews, young, old, men, women, white, black. I'd like to see those kinds of bridges continually built."

"There's been an interesting coalition of groups that have come together," says Lawton's attorney, Joseph Williams. "This has been the issue that's galvanized groups that previously didn't have much to do with each other."

While many groups crossing religious and racial lines have been represented in support of Lawton -- from the Sept. 18 CRPB hearing to her Municipal Court appearances in October -- activists say their concern about the incident transcends their specific affiliations.

"This is not about any organizations or anything like that -- this is to honor our sister," said Cornell Jones, speaking at Lawton's court arraignment. Jones is a member of both Urban Youth Action and the newly formed One Hood Coalition. Rather, he adds, the groups are coming together and uniting behind a common cause.

"What we need to do is get the police under control," says rapper and activist Kay "Da Buttonpusha" Bey, who has also spoken up at recent CPRB meetings. "We need to start it yesterday. There's a 7-year-old girl that's afraid to go to sleep because of Officer Friendly."

So far, Gray's assertion that CPRB meetings would never be empty again has held true: After the crowded Sept. 18 hearing, more than 20 came to the regularly scheduled board meeting on Sept. 26, while 70 people accompanied Lawton at her arraignment Oct. 13, and dozens came to Lawton's preliminary hearing on Oct. 25.

At a CPRB meeting Oct. 24, in the tiny office of Freedom Unlimited, Inc. in the Hill District, where the Lawton case was a single item on a full agenda, dozens concerned with progress on the Lawton complaint filled nearly every available chair.

"This particular incident has a high visibility and has attracted the interest of many people," says CPRB Executive Director Beth Pittinger.

"This needs to continue," CPRB Chair Marsha Hinton told the crowd at the board's Sept. 18 hearing. "The power of the board rests in you, black, white, green, purple, poor, rich."

The CPRB itself stemmed from public outcry over several police issues. In 1997, the city entered into a consent decree with the federal government following charges of alleged police misconduct, including excessive use of force, brought by the local ACLU. The decree was opposed by the police union and the administration of Mayor Tom Murphy. The CPRB had a broader public mandate but less actual power than the consent decree, having been launched by passage of a May 1997 voter referendum.

"When you look at what created the board ... it took the death of Jonny Gammage to really bring it to fruition, but it did. Here we are," said Pittinger. Gammage was a black motorist who died during a Route 51 traffic stop in 1995 involving Brentwood and other suburban police, as well as city cops.

"When you've been at it as long as I have, you have these swells" of interest in police conduct in the community, said Rick Adams, a longtime activist who stood among Lawton supporters at her arraignment. "We've been fighting this battle a long time. It took 20 years of struggle to get a review board and it's not all it could be."

As detailed in CP last year, interest and involvement in the CPRB waned after its first decade; seats on the board went unfilled, compromising the board's ability to do its job. (See April 27, 2005, "Oversight Oversights.").

"Often, it's just the board and the staff," at meetings, said Pittinger, describing the situation prior to Lawton's complaint. "It doesn't delay any of [the board's] work," she added. "They do the same work every month."

So far this year, the board has handled 377 complaints, she said, and projects it will handle 467 by year's end. But the surge of interest in the board, engendered by the Lawton incident, has been encouraging to her and the board members.

"It's great to be able to communicate with people we haven't before," she said. "I'm delighted to be working with people who are just becoming enlightened about the board."

At the Sept. 26 regular CPRB meeting, for instance, the board allowed the three-minute limit on speakers to go by the wayside when Minister Jasiri X of Nation of Islam Muhammad Mosque No. 22, in Wilkinsburg, asked detailed questions about how the board works and when to expect results.

Lawton's preliminary court hearing also saw dozens come out in support. Williams, her attorney, asked that all charges be dropped, but District Magistrate Cathy Bubash postponed the hearing until Nov. 30 because the police hadn't submitted their evidence.

"We cannot not be here" for the postponed trial, said Tim Stevens of the Black Empowerment Project, another constant presence by Lawton's side. "Don't let them psych us out."

"This is a test of will," said vocal activist Gray. "They want to see if we have the wherewithal to stick it out. They'll delay as many times as they can."

"We want to fill up the courtroom" on Nov. 30, Jasiri X said. "They expect us to quit. This just gives us more time to organize."

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