A group of protesters is suing Pittsburgh city and police officials, saying officers used unnecessary, excessive force to disperse a crowd protesting against police brutality and officials lied about the protesters’ behavior to justify that response.
The lawsuit filed Monday alleges protesters’ constitutional rights were violated when police dispersed a crowd of about 150 people protesting after the Minneapolis death of George Floyd, at one point allegedly firing blindly into a cloud of smoke and tear gas with beanbags and other projectiles. They allege police acted on a false narrative. Some of the protesters say law enforcement officers boxed them in and prevented many from being able to follow an order to disperse, arresting people who were trying to leave and even lobbing tear gas canisters and smoke at people nearly a half-mile away from the protest trying to get to their cars.
“The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police (“PBP”) responded by escalating a peaceful protest into a scene of pandemonium, panic, violence and bloodshed,” the attorneys wrote in the lawsuit filed in federal court. “As the assembled protesters held their hands in the air and chanted, “This is not a riot,” and “Hands up – Don’t shoot,” PBP ordered its officers to attack them with explosives, chemical agents and ammunition which is known to seriously wound and sometimes kill its targets.”
The smaller demonstration had splintered off from an hours-long earlier protest that attracted around a thousand people on the afternoon of June 1. Police officials said after the protest that nine officers and two protesters received medical attention for injuries.
Police have said an officer was threatened, and that bricks, water bottles and other projectiles were thrown at officers before they used force to disperse the splintered crowd. They’ve denied they used tear gas when breaking up the protest or that they used rubber bullets, instead saying they used sponge rounds and bean bags.
Protesters say that narrative isn’t true.
“I was disheartened when I turned on the news and saw a mayor that I supported… saying none of the stuff that I just saw happen, happened,” said Donovan Hayden, one of the plaintiffs. “Many of the things I heard them say to justify firing at us, I didn’t see those things happen. I didn’t see a single brick.”
Messages were left seeking comment from public safety officials Monday. A spokesman for the mayor declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Other lawsuits have been filed in recent weeks by the American Civil Liberties Union and others saying law enforcement officers in places like Indiana, Colorado and Washington D.C. have used excessive force against largely peaceful protesters including pepper spray, tear gas and projectiles like rubber bullets and sponge tipped rounds. Those lawsuits seek court-mandated changes to those practices, but many also seek monetary damages— something that may prove difficult because police officers have qualified immunity, meaning courts have ruled they can’t be held personally responsible for constitutional violations that might have happened while they were performing their duties. In cases where damages are awarded, cities are often on the hook to pay.
The Pittsburgh plaintiffs include some of the more than 20 protesters who faced charges for failure to disperse. The District Attorney’s office dropped those charges, but attorneys for the protesters say there are larger issues of police conduct that need to be addressed. They want a ban on “less than lethal munitions” and the use of tear gas against nonviolent groups and when officers cannot see their intended targets.
A video from the tense confrontation included in the complaint shows officers lining up across a street and issuing orders to disperse for several minutes before officers fire smoke and a flash bang into the crowd. Then a few projectiles can be seen being flung toward officers, but the lawyers and protesters say it was only after officers began using force.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who initially praised officers in the hours after the protest, has said there are substantial differences between police and protester narratives about the use of force that night. He has asked the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board to investigate.
Simon Phillips said he was leaving the protest to walk home when he was boxed into an alley by SWAT officers. He was handcuffed in zip ties and sat on the curb for more than an hour before being charged with a misdemeanor failure to disperse.
The zip ties cut into his wrist, leaving blood on the ground, and Phillips was billed almost $900 for the stitches officers insisted he get so he could be booked into the jail, he said.
Nicole Rulli and her fiance were walking to their car with her 13-year-old son, blocks away from the initial police confrontation, when a SWAT vehicle pulled up to an intersection where Rulli stopped to light a cigarette. Video of the encounter shows officers exit the back of the vehicle, pull a pin on a canister of what Rulli said was tear gas, and lob it at her without yelling any commands.
Rulli said the canister hit her foot and released its contents, sending her to the ground struggling for breath. A legal observer who filmed the encounter called 911 and requested an ambulance, but when none showed up after more than 30 minutes, Rulli turned to finding her son, who ran several blocks to a parking lot where others helped flush the irritants from his eyes.
“If you tell us to move or disperse, and we don’t listen, that’s one thing, but you didn’t say a word… no one says anything until I scream,” Rulli said.