Pittsburgh officials sued in federal court over response to June 1 protest

  • Chris Potter/WESA

(Pittsburgh) — A half-dozen people involved in a June 1 East Liberty protest have filed a federal lawsuit against city of Pittsburgh officials, alleging that police violated their civil rights and “escalat[ed] a peaceful protest into a scene of pandemonium, panic, violence and bloodshed.”

The lawsuit names Mayor Bill Peduto, Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich, Police Chief Scott Schubert and other command staff. It says police targeted protesters “with explosives, chemical agents and ammunition which is known to seriously wound and sometimes kill”— including rubber bullets and tear gas.  It charges that police “arbitrarily” deployed tear gas in some cases, and in others trapped protesters with chemical gas and then arrested them for failing to disperse, putting protesters at risk of exposure to the coronavirus. And it accuses Peduto and others not only of sanctioning those tactics but, in a press conference afterward, “disseminat[ing] flagrant lies to conceal and/or justify the PBP’s shameless use of force against peaceful protesters.”

At a late-night press conference following the demonstration, Peduto and other leaders defended police, blaming the escalation on a small group of people who threw rocks at officers and engaged in vandalism. Officials also said officers only used smoke grenades, rather than chemical agents, to disperse protesters – a claim that proved to be false. After criticism mounted, Peduto ordered a review of police actions which is still pending.

Allegations in the complaint are documented with video evidence, including some footage taken by one of the plaintiffs. But city officials have said that city police do not use rubber bullets; whether tear gas was deployed by city police in June is among the questions being investigated. Other police agencies, including the Pennsylvania State Police, are said to have been present at the scene of the protest.

A frame from a video taken by a June 1 protester, and used as evidence in a federal class-action suit against the City of Pittsburgh.

A frame from a video taken by a June 1 protester, and used as evidence in a federal class-action suit against the City of Pittsburgh.

The suit seeks punitive damages for those subjected to force or arrest on June 1, and it also asks the court to prohibit police from using less-lethal munitions against protesters not engaged in violent acts, and from ordering protesters to disperse unless they “present an imminent threat to public safety.”

The six plaintiffs themselves allege they were exposed to tear gas or wrongfully arrested – in some cases while they were on their way home and well away from the site of the protest itself. One says she was separated from her child after police fired gas at her family, others say they were detained or exposed to tear gas and face an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 as a result. All say that, despite police claims that some protesters began throwing projectiles at officers, they neither did so themselves nor saw anyone else doing so.

The lawsuit notes that police took a much less confrontational approach to in April 20 demonstration Downtown, in which armed men protested state shutdown orders intended to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The June protest “posed less of a threat … than the heavily harmed April 20 protesters,” the suit alleges, but police “did not deploy SWAT units, armored vehicles, riot police and/or snipers” nor “order the protesters to disperse and/or use force to disperse them.”

By contrast, a police-brutality protest two days before the East Liberty demonstration was met with arrests and crowd-control munitions, which the suit alleges were used “indiscriminately against everyone present, including peaceful protesters and nonviolent bystanders.” The suit says that city leaders “made no effort to ensure that such indiscriminate use of force did not occur at future protests,” even though the May 30 response put them “on notice that PBP officers would use overwhelming and excessive force against peaceful protesters with little or no provocation,” and that police “would arrest and jail peaceful protesters with little or no evidence to support criminal charges.”

By all accounts, including that in the lawsuit, the East Liberty protest began quietly, with police clearing traffic for and communicating with demonstrators as they marched through the area. Sometime after 6:30 p.m., though, a smaller group of between 100 and 150 protesters continued to march. Although their “behavior was not materially different from the behavior of the larger group of protesters earlier in the day,” they were met with between 50 and 100 officers in riot-control gear, some in military camouflage, deployed in the street.

The complaint acknowledges that police gave multiple warnings to disperse, and that the protesters did not do so. But it asserts they also did not throw anything or “commit acts of violence or vandalism.” Nor did police “communicate to the Protesters why the assembly was declared unlawful.”

Instead, it charges, after detonating a “flashbag grenade,” police began firing rubber bullets, beanbag rounds and other “less lethal” munitions.

The complaint alleges that not only did police fail to help protesters who were injured by those tactics, but they fired tear gas and pepper spray at those who did try to help, or who were merely observing the scene. While an ambulance was seen traveling with police officers, there was no medical assistance from EMTs, and the suit contends that “injured Protesters received medical assistance by untrained and unqualified individuals and were transported to the hospital in cars and pickup trucks.”

The use of tear gas meant “[p]rotesters were forced to choose between approaching a line of officers or retreating into clouds of chemical gas,” the suit says, and then “arrested trapped Protesters and falsely charged them with failure to disperse and disorderly conduct.” Charges against 22 arrestees were dropped, but by then they had been “confined for hours” in the county jail, where they faced “an increased risk of contracting COVID-19.”

The suit says that city police fired crowd-control munitions through clouds of smoke, such that they couldn’t see who they are targeting, and that police violated policies that bar firing the weapons from a distance of less than 20 feet. It also says that police used weaponry, including rubber bullets, that it has no policies for using.

By ignoring or failing to have such policies, the suit says, showed “deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of Plaintiffs and other peaceful Protesters.”

City spokesman Tim McNulty said he couldn’t comment on the suit.

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