Following Up: PrideFest altercation raises as many questions about police policy as it does about the officer's conduct | Pittsburgh City Paper

Following Up: PrideFest altercation raises as many questions about police policy as it does about the officer's conduct

ACLU head calls PrideFest altercation "important incident" for young Peduto administration

When a June 15 video surfaced of a Pittsburgh police officer pulling a 19-year-old girl, Ariel Lawther, from a crowd of PrideFest attendees by the hair and neck just before punching her several times, the incident became the first high-profile allegation of police misconduct made during Mayor Bill Peduto's watch.

"This is an important incident for him because he has made police accountability the cornerstone of his administration," says Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Walczak says he's reserving judgment on the PrideFest incident until results of the investigation are released. But he adds, "One of the biggest problems we've seen with police over the last several years is the city's failure to hold police officers accountable [even] when the evidence of wrongdoing is overwhelming."

The Lawther incident comes at an awkward time for Peduto, whose efforts to recruit a new public-safety director took longer than expected. The administration is now searching for a new police chief. And the PrideFest controversy hasn't just raised questions from police-accountability activists: Event organizers have questioned the procedures that determined which officers provided security — procedures established to address an earlier police scandal.

PrideFest altercation, youtube video screenshot
Images from a YouTube video of Pittsburgh Police Officer Souroth Chatterji arresting Pride attendee Ariel Lawther following a disputed altercation between the pair.

The choppy, 16-second video that initially emerged after the incident shows the events leading up to the arrest near Sixth Street and Liberty Avenue Downtown. The footage became a flashpoint in interpretations of whether Officer Souroth Chatterji was justified in punching Lawther.

The video shows Chatterji dragging a screaming Lawther from a crowd of PrideFest attendees gathered around a group of anti-gay protesters. Chatterji can then be seen punching her in the abdomen several times before arresting her.

In a criminal complaint, Chatterji contends he was trying to subdue Lawther because she had shoved anti-gay protester Eric Moure — and that she "began to push and strike me in the chest with her hands and groin area with her legs."

"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."

Lawther is facing a felony aggravated-assault charge and charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. She's also facing a misdemeanor assault charge filed last November in an unrelated incident.

Those critical of Chatterji's use of force, including two witnesses who later posted video of the altercation online, say Lawther didn't physically accost either Chatterji or the protester — and that they weren't sure why the officer responded with such force.

But according to Bryan Campbell, Chatterji's police-union attorney, investigators have uncovered video and photographic evidence that Lawther did lash out at both Moure and Chatterji. One of the photos shows Lawther and Chatterji grabbing each other's forearms, though it's not clear exactly when the photo was taken.

Campbell says Lawther was "a woman who attempt[ed] 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 he expects the investigation to wrap up within a few weeks.

Already, however, PrideFest's chief organizer says changes in city policy made it difficult to hire off-duty police officers who'd provided security for the event in the past. That resulted in the assignment of officers who may not have been ideally equipped to handle a confrontation between anti-gay protesters and Pride attendees.

"We've always had protesters at the festival," says Gary Van Horn, board president of the Delta Foundation, the organization that hosts Pride.

"In the past, we have worked with specific lieutenants that ... scheduled the officers and briefed the officers," Van Horn says. "The scheduler was going to [assign] officers who understood the event."

But this year, Van Horn says, the city required officers to be selected through North Carolina-based Cover Your Assets, a company contracted to help manage scheduling off-duty police officers to work events like Pride.