Victimless Crimes | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Usually, police states run a bit more smoothly than this. 

During Pittsburgh's G-20 summit in September, 3,000 police officers came from departments all over the country to help provide security. Activists denounced the police presence as overkill, but the tactics may actually be backfiring on law enforcement. The sheer number of police officers -- and the difficulty they had identifying each other -- is preventing local prosecutors from getting convictions against summit arrestees. 

Three people facing felony aggravated assault charges -- among the most serious charges filed against protesters -- had those charges dismissed on Oct. 28. The Allegheny County District Attorney's office, it turned out, couldn't determine which police officers were involved in the circumstances leading to the arrests.

For instance, Pittsburgh police detective Brian Nicholas arrested Joshua Berman on Sept. 24 for allegedly tossing a "cylinder-like object" and striking another officer in Oakland around 10 p.m. But at a preliminary hearing, Berman's defense attorney pointed out that assault charges require a specific victim. Assistant district attorney Geoffrey Melada responded by telling magisterial District Judge Kevin Cooper, "I don't think the burden [on the prosecution] is to give you his name, his favorite pet, where he likes to vacation."

"We had to expect when we came into the G-20 that this scenario would unfold, with thousands of officers from all over the country," Melada argued. 

Could prosecutors find the officer if this case were held for trial in Common Pleas Court? Cooper asked.

"I can't represent that we will have more information" in the future, Melada said.

Cooper dismissed the assault charge, though Berman still faces trial on a handful of lesser charges, including disorderly conduct.

Similarly, in another Sept. 24 arrest in Oakland, assistant district attorney Paul Barkus tried to argue that "names are not an element of the offense" of aggravated assault. Defendant Frank Smith was accused of not obeying a dispersal order in front of a line of police, then struggling with arresting sheriff's deputies during his arrest

Asked by Smith's defense attorney John Pushinsky to identify the deputies, Pittsburgh police officer Michael Saldutte testified that "due to the complexity of events ... I was unable to get their information."

"You do need a victim" to pursue the charge, Pushinsky argued before the judge.

District Judge James Hanley agreed. He dismissed the assault charges against Smith, who still faces misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest, failure to disperse and disorderly conduct.

The prosecution was essentially forced to dismiss another assault case entirely. Cornell student Malcolm Sanborn-Hum was arrested on Enfield Street at Baum during the anarchists' march on Sept. 24: Sanborn-Hum had objected while a fellow protester was snatched by police in fatigues and shoved into an unmarked sedan. Besides aggravated assault charges, Sanborn-Hum had faced the misdemeanor charge of failure to disperse.

But when it came time to prosecute him, the district attorney's office couldn't identify the arresting officers -- or even the agencies they worked for.

"We can't substantiate who these officers are," Melada said. "They're not Pittsburgh police, they're not county sheriffs ..." 

Sanborn-Hum will have his charge of disorderly conduct dismissed, in exchange for performing 50 hours of community service. 

It's not clear how many more cases will fall apart due to similar circumstances. But even some successful prosecutions may be turned over on appeal. Eleven people have already been fined for disorderly conduct during Sept. 25 mass arrests on Oakland's Cathedral of Learning lawn -- but some of those were found guilty after officers testified that they didn't see them commit any crime. As Pittsburgh detective Robert Shaw testified about one such defendant: "I don't know who, but somebody [that is, an unidentifiable law enforcement agent] said to me, 'That's your arrest' and that's how I met her."

"The first real contact I had with [another defendant] was when they were brought to me on Forbes Avenue," testified another Pittsburgh officer, William VanDivner.

At least two of those 11 arrestees are already planning appeals. More than 40 cases still await full trial or an initial hearing.

"This situation is indicative of the need for the CPRB to conduct a thorough review" of G-20 training, planning and procedures, says Beth Pittinger, head of the Citizens Police Review Board. A CPRB public hearing concerning G-20 policing is scheduled for Nov. 10, at an Oakland venue still to be announced. Among other things, the CPRB's investigation is expected to address the fact that police clad in riot gear lacked visible badges or numbers -- making it hard for police and citizens alike to identify individual officers. 

"Maybe the aggravated assaults never happened," Pittinger says. "But if they did, the assailants walk and the victims are served another injustice. ... I don't know which notion is more disconcerting."

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