Local activists were outraged when they saw the photographs of the battered face of David Kipp, who charges that he was beaten by guards at the Allegheny County Jail. But was Kipp, a gay man, the victim of a hate crime? That's not so easy to determine.
Since the alleged Oct. 13 beating, local LGBT and civil-rights organizations have called for a full federal investigation to determine whether a hate crime occurred.
Kipp was incarcerated Oct. 13 for allegedly stabbing his live-in boyfriend, a charge that was subsequently reduced to a misdemeanor.
"Regardless of a person's perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender expression or reason for arrest, as a society we have to be assured that those entrusted with upholding our laws are not abusing their power within our social institutions," says Kathleen Carrick, vice chair of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center board. "If these allegations are proven to be true, it is reasonable to expect that the additional charge of a hate crime will be filed in this case."
But proving that could be a challenge. "You don't just have to prove a violent crime occurred, you have to prove a hate or bias existed," says Ty Cobb, legislative counsel to the Human Rights Campaign. "You'd have to explore the perpetrator's past history and situation to develop a record proving" a bias.
A hate crime, according to the HRC, occurs when a victim is selected because of certain identity traits. Under a federal statute, it's considered an act of violence against someone of a protected characteristic, which includes sexual orientation, race and religion. Each state has its own set of laws. In Pennsylvania, the hate-crime law does not offer protections on the basis of sexual orientation.
Allegheny County police have since charged two correctional officers -- Arii Metz and Marcia Williams -- in connection with the alleged Oct. 13 beating. A third officer said to be involved in the incident, Timothy Miller, has not been charged. County police reported that the jail's medical section alerted them that Kipp, 24, of Polish Hill, was being treated for facial injuries, and was claiming that guards assaulted him.
Kipp alleged he first had a physical confrontation with guards in the processing area. Once in a cell, he alleged that Metz and correctional officer Timothy Miller entered his cell, while Williams stood in the doorway. Police wrote in the criminal complaint: "According to Kipp, Officer Metz punched him repeatedly in the face and head with a closed [fist]. Kipp estimated that Officer Metz may have punched him as many as 20 times." Miller told police he saw Metz slam Kipp on a bench and punch him in the face with a closed fist, between 10 and 15 times.
County police allege that no officer reported the physical confrontation. They say that the guards told investigators they were going in Kipp's cell to "Calm him down." They cite video surveillance in which Metz and Miller enter the cell while Williams stood in the doorway, "periodically looking around the area."
A booking photo taken that morning shows Kipp without any apparent injury. In a second photo, reportedly taken later that day, Kipp's face appears bloodied and bandaged. Kipp suffered a broken nose, ruptured ear drum and facial swelling.
Metz and Williams were charged on Nov. 8. All three officers have been suspended without pay. The Pittsburgh division of the FBI has an ongoing civil-rights investigation into the crime.
"There's no reason that kid should have looked like he did," says Gary Van Horn, president of the Delta Foundation, an LGBT advocacy group. "There's definitely a civil-rights case here. If it's because he's gay, then that takes it further to another degree." But, he cautions, "There's still a lot of investigation left."
Kipp still faces drug charges stemming from the police investigation of his apartment the night of the stabbing. At a Dec. 3 preliminary hearing on those charges in municipal court, Kipp deferred comment to his attorney, Kevin Abramovitz. Abramovitz says that while his client's civil rights were violated, he doesn't have enough information to know whether the attack was motivated by Kipp's sexuality. Still, he says, the events are "disturbing."
"You have a guy locked in a cell and a few guys go and beat him up. He wasn't a threat to anyone. What's the motive to go in and hurt him?" Abramovitz says. "What happened to this young man could only be fueled by hate, anger and complete rage."
Activists tend to agree. "A police officer stood guard -- that's a premeditated action -- while a crime took place," says Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania. "Any time law enforcement gets involved, we put a lid on things but they need to be explored."
Frank Walker, an attorney for Williams, says his client was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Williams was in the area of Kipp's cell "because she worked there," and he questioned the decision not to charge Miller. "Why was the person inside the cell not charged?"
Allegheny County police superintendent Charles Moffatt said he could not comment on the case, other than to say that the investigation is ongoing. Metz's attorney could not be reached, and Kipp's civil attorney, Jonathan Stewart, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Jail warden Ramon Rustin said he could not comment specifically on the case but says the jail is putting together a training program that deals with diversity and "more specific issues, like sexual orientation."
"Every year we have to change policies and procedures and this seems to be the direction most correctional facilities are going," says Rustin.
He says that correctional officers know they will encounter individuals with beliefs varying from their own, but that they must uphold their professionalism. "To have an incident like this is way out of scope of what a correctional officer is hired to do. If there was an issue where this individual was targeted because of his preference, they would be charged accordingly," he says. But, he says, "So far that hasn't been the case."
But since the case has become public, Delta's Van Horn says he's received other complaints from formally incarcerated LGBT individuals about their treatment in jail. In addition to the investigation, Delta, PFLAG Pittsburgh, Equality Partners of Western Pennsylvania, Persad, the GLCC, Equality Pennsylvania, the American Civil Liberties Union, Steel-City Stonewall Democrats, and city councilors Bruce Kraus and Doug Shields are also calling for diversity training for all county employees. "If this is what's happening, then this affords us the opportunity to talk about it," Van Horn says.
In a Nov. 8 press conference, Pittsburgh FBI Special Agent in Charge Michael Rodriguez said the U.S. Attorney's office would likely file charges that the guards violated Kipp's civil rights. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rodriguez said "there was no evidence that Metz assaulted Kipp because he is gay."
A spokesman at the U.S. Attorney's office declined comment. As of press time, no additional charges had been filed.
Other civil-rights advocates are questioning jail management in the wake of other recent events, including two federal lawsuits. The family of a pregnant female inmate alleges she died because the jail didn't treat her pneumonia fast enough. Another inmate is contending that a jail guard ignored him as he was beaten by a group of inmates and also turned off an emergency alarm that had been activated to call for help. And Captain Thomas Leicht, director of the jail's internal-affairs unit, which investigates prisoners and employees involved in criminal activity, was recently fired. He was accused of lying about his credentials, among other things.
"The number and diversity of things happening at the jail is ringing a lot of alarms," says Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pittsburgh branch of the ACLU. "Is this the proverbial tip of the iceberg? It's difficult because the prisons are a closed system and it's difficult to shine light on them."
But Rustin maintains the spate of incidents are isolated and are "not connected. You have to understand everyone incarcerated has issues with their incarceration."
He acknowledges that being a large jail system with 2,800 inmates and 497 uniformed personnel presents its challenges. "The public needs to realize we're one of the largest jails," he says. "These types of incidents happen in larger environments."
But, he adds, "I don't want people to jump to conclusions and think the jail is violating people's rights because that's definitely not happening. These are isolated incidents that we deal with and respond to by putting policies and procedures in place."