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ACLU-Pa. sues McKeesport, Allegheny County for overly aggressive manhunt

  • By Glynis Board/WESA

 Jillian Forstadt / 90.5 WESA

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has sued the city of McKeesport, Allegheny County and numerous police officers, claiming the officers violated Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure and the state constitution while searching for a person suspected of shooting an officer in December 2020.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit this week in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court against the city, the county and numerous named and unnamed police officers.

Police reportedly used drones, dogs, multiple checkpoints and armed officers from throughout the region to search for 22-year-old Koby Lee Francis. Francis had been detained by law enforcement but managed to free himself and escape, shooting the officer in the process. He pleaded guilty to charges in the shooting earlier this year.

“The police officer thankfully lived,” said staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania Solomon Furious Worlds. “But what ensued afterwards is what the lawsuit is about.”

The suit asserts the manhunt targeted Black residents of McKeesport with abusive tactics, such as brandishing firearms, demanding entry into homes at gunpoint without a warrant, and using excessive force during traffic stops.

“[There were] more police than I have ever seen in my life, especially in [downtown McKeesport],” recalled Fawn Walker-Montgomery, CEO of the nonprofit Take Action Advocacy Group and a McKeesport resident who appealed to the ACLU for representation.

“Over 10 departments, some were SWAT, they had flashlights,” she said. “They were looking in my car — in everybody’s car. They were everywhere. I was terrified.

Walker-Montgomery reached out to the ACLU during the week-long manhunt. The organization immediately issued a statement in response, encouraging residents to reach out if their rights were being violated.

What we hope to get out of this lawsuit truly is accountability,” Worlds said this week. “To make sure that the city of McKeesport, the county of Allegheny, their police departments, police departments across the commonwealth, understand that they aren’t able to disregard elements of the Constitution because one of their own is shot.

The lawsuit is seeking compensatory damages and injunctive relief for three McKeesport residents. Allegheny County officials declined to comment on the allegations as per a general county-wide policy not to discuss lawsuits or legal matters.

Walker-Montgomery hopes an independent investigation will reveal protocols police followed in the aftermath of the shooting. Walker-Montgomery said she hopes injunctions will include requiring McKeesport to pass an ordinance to track police data by race and other factors, as the City of Pittsburgh does, and she hopes the McKeesport police department will volunteer to participate in the Allegheny County Police Review Board. 

Walker-Montgomery said this is the third case the ACLU-Pa. has taken up in McKeesport since 2019.

The City of McKeesport, meanwhile, reports it has not yet been formally served or otherwise notified of a pending lawsuit by the ACLU against its municipal government and police department.

“While the City does not comment on pending litigation, we feel very strongly that nothing inappropriate occurred,” solicitor J. Jason Elash said in an emailed statement to WESA. “My legal opinion is that our police department will be vindicated in this matter.”

McKeesport mayor Michael Cherepko said in the same correspondence that he empathizes with anyone who feels their rights were violated during the pursuit, but that he believes proper police protocol was followed.

“This was not an investigative case,” Cherepko said. “This was an active shooter scenario.  This suspect was still in possession of a deadly weapon after already proving an unbridled willingness to use it.”

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