99 Problems: Run-in with Jordan Miles wasn't first controversial incident for three 99-car cops | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

99 Problems: Run-in with Jordan Miles wasn't first controversial incident for three 99-car cops

"Unless the police brass begins punishing violators, the department will never be brought under control."

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Separate legal teams that represented Miles in his two civil trials tried to argue the officers' histories — particularly their conduct during the Lamar Johnson incident — were relevant in establishing a pattern of physical confrontations with people who shouldn't have been suspected of being criminals.

And while some elements of the Johnson incident were made public in a brief lawyers submitted in 2012 asking for a new trial, sworn depositions from Miles' first trial reveal details that have not previously been known. Depositions are sworn statements made by parties, usually in the discovery phase of a civil lawsuit. In the Miles case, the witnesses were questioned by Miles' attorneys with the officers' attorneys in the room.

According to portions of a police report read during Sisak's 2011 deposition, Sisak, Ewing and Saldutte became suspicious of Johnson after smelling marijuana near the intersection of Montezuma Street and Loire Way, in Lincoln-Lemington. The officers were in an unmarked "99" car at the time, and Ewing testified they didn't activate the car's lights or sirens. The officers didn't notice a joint or pipe as they walked toward Johnson, who was walking with another man.

As they approached and identified themselves as police, Johnson put a hand in his pocket and "moves his cupped hand towards his mouth and placed an unknown object in his mouth," according to a police report authored by Ewing, which was read into the record during Sisak's deposition.

And while there was no immediate sign of a pipe, joint or any drug use, the report indicated that Ewing saw the right side of Johnson's coat hanging closer to the ground, bouncing off his body as he walked.

That's when he suspected Johnson had a gun.

According to the report, Johnson complied when he was ordered to stop, but didn't face Ewing squarely and "reached his right hand into his right pocket," later saying, "‘What the fuck are you stopping me for?'"

The physical confrontation began when Sisak tried to pull Johnson's hand out of his pocket and "wrapped his arms around Johnson's arms and around Johnson's upper chest to prevent him from reaching his pockets or waistband."

The incident escalated from there. Ewing wrote that he was afraid Johnson was trying to swallow drugs, so he used a maneuver designed to open Johnson's mouth, but that eventually both men lost their footing and fell to the ground.

In the end, "Johnson was not arrested due to the fact we could not determine for sure what Johnson had in his mouth," according to the report. "Johnson later stated it was a piece of candy."

Sisak testified that a pat-down never revealed or identified the object the officers thought might be a weapon.

Lewis, Miles' attorney in his first trial, thinks the circumstances should sound familiar to those who know the Miles case. In 2010, Miles accused the same officers of jumping out of their car without identifying themselves as police officers, and then assaulting him. The officers claim they clearly identified themselves as officers and confronted Miles because he was lurking near a house.

Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union legal director Vic Walczak says the Johnson and Miles incidents are reminiscent of practices that have plagued the bureau for decades. He points to the "jump squads" of the 1990s, in which plainclothes police frisked "large numbers" of black men and arrested them if they found anything, and if not, "they jumped back into their vehicles and disappeared."

"Officers who violate the Fourth Amendment [which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures], whether in or out of uniform, need to be disciplined," Walczak wrote in an email response to these specific cases. "Until and unless the police brass begins consistently and appropriately punishing violators, the department will never be brought under control."

In 2012, as part of an argument for a new trial, Lewis wrote that Johnson would have testified that the officers, "jumped out of an unmarked car without identifying themselves as police officers and without provocation or basis assaulted him, including throwing him to the ground and choking him. [...] As happened with Jordan Miles, however, no weapon or contraband was found. Nor was any object produced from the pocket which supported their alleged observations."

Though there was an internal investigation stemming from a complaint Johnson filed, the incident never resulted in a ruling that the officers violated policy. Asked in his deposition if "anybody in the chain of command" ever admonished the actions in the Johnson incident, Ewing said that they had not, an answer repeated in Saldutte's deposition.

Campbell, a lawyer for the police union who represented Saldutte, says the Johnson incident and the officers' histories are "totally irrelevant."

"The only thing in the Jordan Miles [case] that's relevant is did the officers act in an objectively reasonable manner on the night in question."

Sisak's attorney, Jim Wymard, and Ewing's attorney, Robert Leight, did not return calls for comment.

Miles' confrontation with the officers left his head bloodied, bruised and missing dreadlocks that were ripped out during the scuffle. In 2012, a jury found in favor of the officers on the claim of malicious prosecution against Miles, but deadlocked on whether the officers erroneously arrested him or used excessive force. This March, a separate jury awarded Miles around $119,000 for false arrest, but said the officers did not use excessive force. 

Miles' current lawyer, Joel Sansone, who provided CP with the depositions in the case, says the Johnson incident is relevant as a matter of "common sense" and may have swayed the jury. He says he plans to appeal the case.

"We were constrained in the case by the ruling that none of the officers' prior incidents would be admissible," Sansone says, acknowledging that introducing all aspects of personnel records "can be unfair."

"But the fact that they did the same thing [in the Johnson case] — and they're called out for giving false reports — you just think those are things the jury would need to know."

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