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Pittsburgh firefighter, a Democratic committee member, faces assault charge in altercation

Written by Chris Potter/WESA | Jul 3, 2019 9:37 AM
greenfield_park.jpg

The park where Thomas D'Andrea pinned down a 13-year-old black child. D'Andrea now faces misdemeanor charges. (Ariel Worthy/WESA)

A Pittsburgh city firefighter and member of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee is facing misdemeanor charges for his role in a racially charged altercation, recordings of which have led to controversy online and on the airwaves. 

On Monday, the website The Root published an account of the June 25 incident in a city playground. The site reposted online video footage of Greenfield resident Thomas D'Andrea, who is white, straddling a 13-year-old African-American youth, with the teenager's older sister tearfully pleading nearby.

According to a police affidavit, the incident began when D'Andrea thought he saw the 13-year-old vandalizing an abandoned truck near a playground across from his home. The teenagers deny that, but a physical altercation - in which each side blames the other for throwing a punch - ended with footage of D'Andrea straddling the 13-year-old's torso, pressing him against playground equipment.

"Please get off my brother, his mouth is bleeding," the 16-year-old is heard begging on one of the videos.

"I know it is, he punched me in the face!" shouts D'Andrea who, police records show, turned 46 on Tuesday. After saying he won't get up until police arrive, he says, "I'm holding him, I'm not hurting him!" When told the boy has asthma, D'Andrea can be heard saying, "I don't give a [expletive]. He just assaulted me! Get away from me now or I will hit you too."

"No you will [expletive] not!" shouts the boy, who moments later appears to be pleading for release.

A second video shows D'Andrea arguing with an onlooker, who tells him he should have had police take care of the matter.

"I was already on the phone with police, you idiot!" D'Andrea shouts.

"Yeah, it looks like you were real calm and collected with these kids," she replies, moments before the 13-year-old can be heard protesting, "My arm! My arm!"

In a Tuesday afternoon press statement, Pittsburgh's Department of Public Safety noted that D'Andrea is a city firefighter who "has been placed on administrative leave. The Office of Municipal Investigations" - which reviews alleged misconduct by city workers - "is investigating."

Misdemeanor charges of simple assault and criminal mischief against D'Andrea are pending, and the city said its investigation is ongoing.

According to a police affidavit, officers received a call for a reported fight Tuesday afternoon. When they arrived at the playground, "We immediately observed an adult male, later identified as Thomas D'Andrea, pinning down a juvenile male. [The boy] stated he had asthma and his chest started hurting when he was being pinned down."

The affidavit offers conflicting accounts of what triggered the incident. The teenagers said they were just sitting in the truck, and that D'Andrea told the 13-year-old that he had called police and "was giving him a head start to run." The affidavit continues, "D'Andrea then followed [the boy] onto the playground equipment while both were exchanging words with each other. [The boy] then stated D'Andrea swung at him and [he] struck D'Andrea back in self-defense." The affidavit reports the boy had "a swollen lip and some dried blood around his mouth" when interviewed by police.  

For his part, the affidavit says, D'Andrea told police that he saw "a young male vandalizing the construction truck, which had been happening all week. D'Andrea stated he has called multiple times for police to respond but nothing happens so he decided to confront the juvenile himself. [D'Andrea claimed] he confonted Juvenile Victim at the truck and then called 911. [The boy] then left the truck and walked towards the playground where [the boy] swung at D'Andrea and in turn D'Andrea swung back ... D'Andrea then took it upon himself to pin [the boy] down on the playground until police arrived."

Officers also reviewed video of the altercation which "only shows D'Andrea pinning down [the boy] and the verbal arguing," the affidavit says.

Police "determined D'Andrea to be the aggressor" and told him charges would be filed. The affidavit says police were later told by the children's father that a doctor found "a large lump on his head, swollen lips, a bloody mouth" and was still having difficulty breathing.

D'Andrea could not be reached by phone, and no one was at his Greenfield home Tuesday afternoon. He did not respond to a written note left at his door. WPXI, which first broadcast the story last week, reported that while D'Andrea was not available for comment, his wife said he was "the real victim in the situation."

D'Andrea faces a preliminary hearing later this summer, according to court records. But already on social media there have been calls for him to be removed from his post on the Allegheny County Democratic Committee.

Eileen Kelly, who chairs the county party, confirmed that D'Andrea is a committeeman in the city's 15th Ward. She said "my phone was blowing up" Tuesday as the story got out.

Kelly said she hadn't spoken to D'Andrea since news of the incident broke. "The only thing I can say right now is that everyone is entitled to due process," she said.

Party bylaws give a chair very little power to remove committeepeople who don't want to leave.

"What we've seen is troubling, but there's nothing in the rules that permits removal" of committeepeople in such circumstances, said Jim Burn, who serves as the party's solicitor.

Burn said an effort to overhaul county rules failed a decade ago, in part because of fears that committee people might be removed simply for bucking party leadership. Committee people are elected by Democratic voters in gubernatorial election years. D'Andrea is a longtime committee person who most recently won on a write-in vote in 2018.

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