A group of protesters filed a class action lawsuit Monday in the US District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania against the City of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Bureau of Police (PBP) for allegedly abusive tactics employed during recent racial justice protests in the East Liberty neighborhood.
The suit targets Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich, Police Chief Scott Schubert and several specific officers at the scene. It accuses the defendants of failing to establish proper crowd control policies, sanctioning excessive force against peaceful protesters, condoning the indiscriminate use of force by PBP and falsely accusing protesters of committing crimes to justify PBP’s use of force. The plaintiffs are seeking class action status and are claiming violations of their First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
The claims arise from a protest on June 1, shortly after the start of nationwide protests against racism and police brutality in the US sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. The protest came only two days after a group of violent protesters burned a police vehicle in downtown Pittsburgh.
According to the suit, the PBP responded to the June 1 protest by “escalating a peaceful protest into a scene of pandemonium, panic, violence and bloodshed,” by deploying “hundreds of officers to counter approximately 150 protesters.” The suit contains a collection of videos of the incident. They show the assembled protesters holding their hands in the air and chanting, “This is not a riot,” “Hands up—Don’t shoot,” and “This is wrong, Please don’t do this,” as they were ordered to disperse by officers in riot gear carrying batons and firearms. However, the police then declared the gathering “unlawful,” and then employed force to disperse the crowd.
The suit also alleges that several senior City officials “falsely accused the Protesters of misconduct and wrongdoing” in an attempt to justify police response after the fact. Specifically, the suit claims that “Protesters did not damage public or private property,” “did not throw bricks or rocks at the PBP officers,” “did not engage in any activity that could have given rise to a reasonable belief that they were likely to cause substantial harm,” and that “Protesters did not present an imminent threat to public safety, peace or order.” The suit also notes that although a curfew was scheduled to take effect at 8:30 PM, the incident in question took place nearly two hours before the start of the curfew.
The suit requests that a federal judge award punitive and compensatory damages to plaintiffs. It also seeks an order to the PBP to cease using less-lethal munitions against peaceful protests, not to employ less-lethal munitions indiscriminately or blindly, not to use chemical agents to disperse crowds who do not pose an imminent threat, not to order the dispersal of crowds who do not pose an immediate threat to public safety or public order, and to not order dispersals without providing a safe path to disperse.
The City of Pittsburgh, Mayor Peduto, and PBP have all declined to comment publicly. However, on June 18, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office decided to withdraw charges against all 22 people arrested and charged by PBP during the incident, citing a lack of evidence.