Citizen review board gets an earful on "rude and discourteous" police conduct | Social Justice | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Citizen review board gets an earful on "rude and discourteous" police conduct

Some Pittsburghers say recent encounters with city police have left them feeling endangered rather than protected.  Witnesses reporting last night to the Citizen Police Review Board shared multiple variations on this theme.

One Homewood resident said her interactions with local law enforcement have convinced her to avoid them at all costs. “I told my kids, ‘If you see somebody beating me to death, skinning me alive, don’t call the police. Call the ambulance, don’t call the police,’” said Carole Speaks, who alleges the police have persistently harassed her and her son without cause.

“I don’t want them around me or my family.” she told the board. “It’s like they’re looking for some problems.”

The public hearing featured six witnesses pre-selected by the board who gave unsworn testimony of their experiences of alleged police harassment and abuse of power. Board members had the opportunity to question all witnesses after their testimony.

According to Bill Ward, board solicitor and hearing officer, the hearing was meant to give both the board and the public the opportunity “to get a flavor and a cumulative impact of the collected testimony.”

Cycling advocate Armin Samii was the first witness to testify, informing the board of an incident from earlier this year in which he was cycling Downtown and came across a police car parked illegally in the bike lane. When Samii asked the officer to move his car, he became irritated and treated Samii rudely and dismissively, Samii says. Video of the incident corroborates Samii's account.

Two individuals who called the police for help in emergency situations told the board the arresting officers in their respective cases failed to appear in court, causing the case to be thrown out.

Christine White-Taylor of Squirrel Hill expressed dismay that police twice failed to appear at her court proceedings regarding an October 2021 incident in which she was the victim.

“The absence was strange because the officer had called me the prior Wednesday to the Monday when we had court to remind me I should be on time,” she said. “Both times I ended up in Commonwealth Court by myself.”

White-Taylor told the board that Zone 4 Police Commander Robert Griffin refused to provide her with an explanation for the repeated absence beyond telling her he had instructed the officer in question not to attend the hearing.

“Having been married to a police officer, was it true that nobody could appear with me at court?” she asked the board. “I’m a victim. I showed up in court without the person that was supposed to protect me.”

Celeste Stec of Lawrenceville described a lengthy dispute with the two men renovating the house next door over a parking spot that she says led to the police falsely arresting her this summer while she was in the middle of teaching a national seminar.

“I teach tax law on a national level for the Internal Revenue Service, which is what I was doing when the police arrested me. I was giving a national presentation. I had hundreds of people online when the police knocked on my door regarding a situation with contractors working on the house next door,” Stec told the board.

She said the flippers next door had the police sent to her house seven times over a period of months in order to harass her over trivial issues.

“All seven times that the police came, not one of them was reasonable or looked at it from my viewpoint,” she said. She said the cops behaved like “power-mongering bullies,” calling them “men with guns with a bad attitude.”

“Their attitude was so bad that I feared that something bad was gonna go down,” she said, noting she recorded the interaction on her phone for protection. “They do not like to be recorded,” she said of the police, “they get real mouthy.”

While standing on the street, she says one of the cops falsely accused her of assault.

“These guys had cones everywhere… I went to move the cone and it hit [officer] Dennis Baker on his calf… he said I assaulted him,” she said.

Baker allegedly claimed Stec threw the cone at him, which she denies.

“I moved the cone, I didn’t throw it,” she said. “I’m 60 years old. I work ten hours a day and then I garden.”

Stec also claims her arresting officers instructed correctional officers at the jail to take a long time to process her paperwork.

The police "told the COs down there that I don't know how to talk to police officers and they should bury my paperwork, and they did. They kept me longer than anyone else who was in the cell,” Stec said to the board. “The COs reminded me of that every time they passed my cell, that until I learned to talk to cops I wasn’t going to be let out.”

A spokesperson for Allegheny County Jail declined to comment on the specifics of Stec's situation but noted jail staff are expected to treat all incarcerated people with "dignity and respect."

"Correctional officers’ training includes courses on interpersonal communication and verbal de-escalation and mental health first aid. These courses include empathy as a key component. Any allegations of staff misconduct are fully investigated by jail administration and all employees are held accountable for their actions.

She says all three times she was required to appear in court for her charges, the police failed to show.

“This has cost me thousands of dollars,” she said. “It was embarrassing and humiliating. I am a police proponent, but nobody in my neighborhood will call the police now, and neither will I....They had no clue how to de-escalate the situation, they made it worse.”

WESA reports that CPRB Executive Director Elizabeth Pittinger told City Council earlier yesterday that the board received 220 complaints this year, continuing a modest decline from previous years. According to the CPRB, there were 227 complaints in 2021; 286 in 2020; 253 in 2019, and 273 in 2018.

Cara Cruz, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety, declined to respond to specific allegations, emailing Pittsburgh City Paper the following statement:

“Pittsburgh Police command staff personnel attended the meeting virtually and always welcome hearing the concerns regarding the bureau of police from residents and visitors. Pittsburgh Police work closely with the CPRB and also encourage anyone who would like to file a formal complaint to do so through the Office of Municipal Investigations which investigates citizen complaints of civil and/or criminal misconduct alleged against City of Pittsburgh employees.”