by Jody DiPerna and Elaine Frantz
Editor’s Note: This story originally ran at the Pittsburgh Current on September 16, 2020. This story contains descriptions of violence and photos of people of color suffering abuse at the hands of police. We are republishing now as this weekend marks the fourth anniversary of the shooting death of Antwon Rose, II.
When law enforcement and race converge, the results are often alarming, maddening and tragic.
We compiled some of the key events in the painful history of police violence against the Black community in Pittsburgh.
Because there are more than 100 different police departments in metropolitan Pittsburgh, we have included incidents from those municipalities, as well as other law enforcement bodies, such as the Port Authority Police and the Pittsburgh Housing Police. It doesn’t really matter who is wearing the badge — these incidents represent the very real, very lived-in experience of Black Pittsburghers.
This timeline is meant as a way into the legacy of racially discriminatory law enforcement. We are disheartened that we were unable to chronicle rape and sexual violence cases herein, simply because they are very rarely reported, if at all.
This is our attempt to acknowledge and understand the history and foundations of the policing of Black bodies and Black spaces. Our hope is that by examining our history, by searching for the connections and throughlines, we can move forward as a community to a more just and equitable future.
If this timeline contains inaccuracies or omissions, please let us know by emailing: email@example.com
THE FORMATION OF THE CITY OF PITTSBURGH AND THE POLICE DEPARTMENT
On March 14, 1816, the Pennsylvania Assembly established Pittsburgh as a City. In August, Pittsburgh Common Councils established a ‘Night Watch’ and set aside $300 for funding.
It was disbanded in March of 1817, although there was some form of watch used to police the city for the next two decades. Via an April, 1836 Ordinance, the Pittsburgh Police Committee was established, staffed by one Captain, two Lieutenants and sixteen watchmen.
In 1851, Mayor John B. Guthrie informed the Select and Common Councils that, with the approval of the Police Committee and under powers granted by the 1836 ordinance, he had appointed nineteen additional watchmen. He urged the Councils to consider raising the size of the force to seventy-five, saying, “the lives and property of our citizens are more deserving of greater consideration than many other objects on which large sums of money are expended.”
In 1857, the Pittsburgh Police Department was founded — a modern force of salaried and full-time officers.
The State Convention of Colored Freemen was held in Pittsburgh for the “improvement of the condition of colored people in this State.” Similar conventions had been held in Philadelphia and other northern cities in the years leading up to the Civil War and afterwards. The delegates at the conventions consisted of both free and fugitive enslaved people. The conventions were created to provide, “organizational structure through which black men could maintain a distinct black leadership and pursue black abolitionist goals.”
Officers Munn and Taylor, two night watchmen, encountered a Black man named Alfred Jordan, walking down Liberty Avenue near the train station. To the watchmen, Jordan seemed intoxicated and could not account for what he was doing. They arrested him. He said he had done nothing wrong and resisted, ultimately biting and kicking at them.
They used their maces (what we now call nightsticks or billy clubs) striking him repeatedly, including, striking him after he was down and “apparently in no condition to offer any violence to the officers.” Witnesses testified to the beating. Mayor George Wilson fired Munn, whom he had previously warned about excessive violence; he suspended Taylor. The mayor stated that accepting “hard usage” was part of the police’s job, and they should only use their mace in extreme circumstances, like apprehending a murderer.
The National Fraternal Order of Police was formed in Pittsburgh, with Fort Pitt Lodge #1. It was intended to “promote the general welfare of its members, to listen to their grievances and to seek better conditions regarding working hours and to eliminate many alleged political abuses to which the men who tramp ‘beats’ have said they were subjected …”
Red Summer of 1919
The Red Summer of 1919 stretched from late-winter to late-summer of that year. Black citizens and communities were targeted by white citizens causing hundreds of Black people to be injured or killed, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
There were large-scale attacks across the country. Many newspapers and media accounts of the time refer to these acts of violence as so-called race riots. However, history tells a different story.
From the EJI: “NAACP membership nationwide had grown more than tenfold, and many Black people were moving to the North and West searching for work and safety from widespread lynching and Jim Crow segregation in the South. Black veterans especially were targeted by white mobs and police who used racist violence to maintain the racial hierarchy.
“During what became known as the Red Summer of 1919, anti-Black riots erupted in 25 major American cities, including Houston, Texas; East St. Louis and Chicago, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; Omaha, Nebraska; Elaine, Arkansas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Charleston, South Carolina. White mobs intent on protecting their economic and social dominance from growing communities of Black workers attacked Black communities, destroyed property, and killed or injured hundreds of Black people.
“Newspapers reported that Black veterans stood “on the front lines” to defend themselves and their communities from these attacks. One of the first victims of Red Summer in Washington, D.C., was a 22-year-old Black veteran named Randall Neal.
“In the fall of 1919, a report on the causes and scope of Red Summer concluded that “the persistence of unpunished lynching” contributed to a mob mentality among white men and fueled a new commitment to self-defense among Black men emboldened by military service.”
Between April and November 1919, there were 97 known lynchings.
The Pittsburgh Courier archives from 1913 to 1922 are missing or were destroyed. Because of the lack of Courier coverage for the summer of 1919, and because Pittsburgh’s white papers did not reliably or fairly report violence against Black people, it is hard to get an accurate sense of what violence was visited upon Black Pittsburghers and how police participated in or responded to it. The stories we do have paint a complicated picture, though a terrifying one for Black people in Pittsburgh.
There are stories of notices being posted in Black communities reading, “The war is over, Negroes. Stay in your place. If you don’t, we’ll put you there.”
Two motorcycle officers apparently saved a Black man who was being pursued by a mob of hundreds of white people at Webster Avenue and Washington Street, after a conflict involving gambling. Newspapers were also full of sensational descriptions of alleged atrocities by “Negroes,” often ending by describing police as “on the hunt” for the perpetrators. Headlines like, “Negro’s Skull Fractured in Resisting Patrolman” were common.
Nationwide, white mobs attacked Black people and Black neighborhoods in a period that is regarded as one of the worst periods of white-on-Black mob violence in U.S. history. Over ten months there were at least 25 riots. More than 250 Black people were killed without repercussion. Victims were lynched, burned, shot and beaten to death. Thousands saw their homes and businesses destroyed.
October 27, 1919
Albert Jeter, a 60 year-old Black man, was waiting for a streetcar when he was robbed of $50 by a uniformed officer. The patrolman claimed that he searched Jeter because he could ‘not give a good account of himself.’ (Read an Essay from Author Deesha Philyaw inspired by this item.)
June 2, 1923
Policeman William Fullerton, of the 43rd Street Police station, was charged with the murder of Thomas Richardson, a 33 year-old Black man. According to the Pittsburgh Courier, Fullerton had a reputation for violence and shooting. Charlie Richardson, the brother of the victim, told the Courier that Fullerton had arrested Thomas for interfering in police business and as he was walking Thomas to the patrol box, Fullerton shot him.
At his trial in December, 1924, Fullerton claimed that Richardson pulled a gun. The Pittsburgh Press reported that he shot Richardson in the chest, but the Courier reported that he shot Richardson in the back, at close range. The jury deliberated for 10 minutes before acquitting Fullerton.
June 25, 1925
Representatives from the Hill District met with County Council to report systematic police brutality and terrorism against Black residents. Council directed the Director of Public Safety to: “Go up there and clean up; throw out those responsible and put in new … We don’t want you to investigate it — we don’t want reports, but we want this handled as it should be handled. … You have heard what these people said, and we all know that they have not come here just to hear themselves talk.”
The ACLU published ‘The Shame of Pennsylvania,’ which contended that Pennsylvania had, “more police violence, brutality, violations of civil rights …” than any state in the union; it documented police violence against workers throughout the state, including Pittsburgh. It reasoned: “The industrial conflict in Pennsylvania will continue to be marked by bloodshed and violence as long as the thousands of public and private police are allowed to abuse their powers without inquiry or punishment… [the Governor must act, because] the legislature can do nothing except abolish the police, which is not conceivable.”
December 19, 1931
John Thornton was stopped by police near his home. Officer Stanley Fajurski searched him and found an unloaded revolver. The officer then beat Thorton in the head with a mace (billy club/nightstick.) In March of 1932, Officer Fajurski was found guilty of aggravated assault and battery. News of the officer’s conviction appeared on page 25 of the March 18, 1932 edition of the Pittsburgh Press.
Thomas Phoenix and Thomas Holland were held as theft suspects by the Coraopolis police. Both men, both Black, were beaten unmercifully while at the jail. According to testimony of one of the prisoners, as well as several other members of the police force, Chief Kieszek tightened the handcuffs on Phoenix until his wrists bled. He gagged him, kicked him and beat him in the stomach with a blackjack. The Chief of Police and five other policemen in Coraopolis were dismissed by the Borough council.
June 3, 1933
Police officer Tony Bettors shot wildly on Wylie Avenue and Arthur Street in the Hill District as he chased suspect Roosevelt Jones. Witnesses say that the incident began outside a speakeasy said to be owned by officer Bettors’ family. Charges of felonious shooting against officer Bettors were later dismissed.
July 25, 1934
After several high-profile cases of arrestees with cracked skulls, Pittsburgh Mayor William N. McNair considered forbidding police from carrying nightsticks (or maces) and said, “It’s too easy for them to use their clubs on people’s heads.” This marked a reconsideration of prohibition-era policing tactics — in the 1920s, police had often been expected to “use night-sticks freely,” particularly when conducting raids on areas like the Hill District.
July 25, 1934
A Black man was arrested because somebody called the police on him for fear that he might attack one of the kids playing nearby. Verbatim reporting from the Pittsburgh Courier titled the incident, ‘LUCKY MAN,’ and described the event as follows:
“William Lynch, of 402 Adelaide street (sic) was arrested on Melwood Street, after someone sent in a call for the Radio Car. Lynch was supposed to have been playing with some kids and it was feared that he might ‘attack’ one of the girls.
“When the Radio Car got there, they found Lynch alone and no one to verify the story. He was taken to the Oakland Police Station after a ‘number’ book was found in his possession. He was charged with gambling, not rape, and fined the next morning.” (Read Caitlyn Hunter’s Essay inspired by this item here.)
March 28, 1934
Aloysius Spaulding, a Black man, and an ex-boxer from the Hill District, died of a suspicious suicide in his jail cell three days after he was arrested for killing police officer William Heagy. Mayor David L. Lawrence called for an investigation into charges of widespread police mistreatment of Black prisoners. The investigation found no evidence of foul play.
November 18, 1958
Police created the K-9 Corps. Used widely for guard duties in the Second World War, dogs such as German Shepherds were said to have “psychological value” on would-be lawbreakers.
Black Pittsburghers fought back against police brutality through local chapters of national organizations like the NAACP, Urban League, CORE and the ACLU but also through local organizations like Citizen’s Committee Against Police Brutality, Big Daddies of Beltzhoover, and Civilian Alert Patrols, in order to observe, document, prevent, and protest police violence against Black people.
In November 1967, the police began using chemical mace manufactured by a local company. It was said to be a “more humane” alternative to nightsticks, particularly for suppressing riots. One of its first local uses was against student protesters at Oliver High School.
Spring, 1968 — Kerner Commission Report Issued in March
The American summer of 1967 was full of racial turbulence as pent-up frustrations boiled over in many poor and poorly-served African-American neighborhoods. There were widespread riots. In Detroit, 43 people died. Twenty-six people died in Newark. Many white Americans blamed the riots on outside agitators or on young Black men, in particular.
President Lyndon B. Johnson constituted the Kerner Commission to identify the causes of the uprisings and unrest. In March 1968, the Kerner Commission released its findings — white racism, not Black anger — was the match that lit the flame. The Kerner Commission warned that the United States was so divided it was poised to fracture into two radically unequal societies.
The commission reported: “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
April 4, 1968 — Martin Luther King, Jr. Assassinated
Nationwide protests and unrest were sparked by the assassination of MLK, including actions in traditionally Black neighborhoods in Pittsburgh — the Hill District, Homewood, and the North Side. The Pittsburgh police were deployed and the National Guard was called in to enforce a curfew in the Hill. The week of violence saw one death and 926 arrests.
In the wake of King’s assassination, the Pittsburgh Police introduced a ‘Tactical Patrol Force’ with special equipment and training, aimed at policing, “civil disturbance, labor disputes, demonstrations, and large public gatherings.” A Post-Gazette editorial later noted: “By its verbal and physical abuse of arrested persons, the TPF has appeared to use its authority to punish those associated with unpopular causes rather than simply to maintain the peace.”
The almost-entirely white force was directed largely at young Black people, sometimes at local high schools, and became extremely controversial. Among Black Pittsburghers, it was sometimes referred to as a ‘gestapo’ or ‘goon squad” The force was eliminated in 1971.
August 27, 1969
In August of 1969, after days of protest, the NAACP wrote to Mayor Joseph Barr about police brutality in the arrests of demonstrators at the Manchester Bridge and Sixth and Liberty Avenues. The demonstrations, organized by Operation Dig and led by Nate Smith, were peaceful protests in response to the hiring of all-white or nearly all-white work crews for the construction of both Three Rivers Stadium and the U.S. Steel Building. Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, said the organization “vigorously protests unwarranted police brutality, use of Chemical Mace, and the arrests of 131 demonstrators.
Pittsburgh created its Narcotics Division, one year before President Richard M. Nixon declared a “War on Drugs.” Through the rest of the twentieth century, the Pittsburgh Police would increasingly focus on drug-related arrests, particularly in communities of color.
April 17, 1971
George Cotton, a 19-year-old disabled youth, was beaten by four police officers from 5 Station. The case was brought to light by firefighter Williams Jenkins, who witnessed the beating. Neighborhood Legal Services went public with other such complaints of police brutality, including the beating of 15-year-old Vernon Mitchell, also by officers from 5 Station; and the beating of 19 year-old Terrence McKnight, who suffered a leg fracture while in the custody of 4 Station police.
F.W. Quinlan, president of the local FOP, was quoted as saying that it was all part of a conspiracy to undermine authority by, “those groups of people who have caused the problems in the universities, in the prisons, and on the streets.” When asked who those groups of people were, Quinan responded, “I would hope the government knows who they are.”
June 22, 1971
Patrolman Howard Landers shot and killed 19 year-old Ernest T. Williams. Landers claimed he thought Williams was another man — escaped murderer, Leonard Moses. A coroner’s jury ordered the patrolman to be held for involuntary manslaughter charges. The following day, the police trial board exonerated Landers of improperly discharging his gun.
In September of that same year, after a high-speed chase, police officers shot John Williams, the 17-year-old brother of Ernest Williams, on the Boulevard of the Allies. John Williams survived. His father told the Pittsburgh Press at the time that it was “more than coincidental” that a second son was shot by the police.
In November 1971, District Judge Rabe A. Marsh issued an injunction requiring six white Pittsburgh police officers to stop, “harassing, threatening, intimidating, and beating” Black Pittsburgh residents. Witnesses testified that the officers had beaten Black residents around the East Liberty, Homewood and Brushton neighborhoods with clubs, blackjacks (a piece of metal covered by leather, with a metal handle) and lead-weighted gloves. The six officers were transferred to another station.
The FOP objected to the ruling with President Francis Quinlan claiming: “If the public allows this to continue, the hands of the police will be tied and the death knell of law enforcement shall be rung.”
Federal Judge Gerald J. Weber ruled that the hiring practices of the Pittsburgh Police Department showed ‘racial and sexual discrimination,’ and issued an Order on hiring in the Department. He set new guidelines for the hiring of new officers and said that the city must develop a better system of qualifications ‘free from racial and sexual bias.’
The Pennsylvania Justice Department was called in to assist in a fact-finding commission on alleged police brutality in Wilkinsburg. Deputy State Attorney General Michael Louik received 12 complaints regarding six different incidents of police brutality in the municipality. The state hearings were separate from an FBI probe of the beating of three Black men after they were arrested by the Wilkinsburg PD. The three men said they were arrested under false pretenses and beaten while in the Wilkinsburg jail.
August 18, 1979
Following a traffic accident on the night of August 18th, Lillian Sands claimed that Swissvale police officers Nuzzo and Ohrman took her to the station, took $100 out of her purse and refused to return the money. Her son, Willie Sands, came to the station to pick up his mother. She told him that the police had hit her. Willie said that he was hit in the head with a club by a policeman. He needed six stitches to close his head wound. Police charged him with disorderly conduct and assault. [He was acquitted.] In Sept. 1981, the Borough paid $2,000 to Sands and her son to settle out of court.
September 5, 1981
William B. Robison and his son, William Robison, Jr., claim they were attacked by a police dog, beaten and had mace used on them by the Swissvale Police in an altercation in Regent Square. On October 10th, DA Robert Colville approved a request by Robinson’s attorney to file criminal charges against several Swissvale police officers. At trial, the police testified that the younger Robinson struck one of the officers during a traffic stop and that the elder Robinson was bitten by a police dog, but only when he was attempting to strike an officer. Both Swissvale officers were acquitted.
April 10, 1984
Anthony Agurs was killed by Pittsburgh police officer Bernard Hont, who struck him with a car in the Stanton Heights Shopping Center parking lot. The 15 year-old Agurs died when he was pinned between two vehicles — a stolen automobile (from which he and two other youths allegedly had been seen running) which Hont was driving and a police automobile. Hont was acquitted of vehicular homicide, but the City paid over $100,000 to Agurs’ family to settle a civil lawsuit.
In 1988, Bernard Hont was convicted of five counts of burglary and one count each of conspiracy and theft. In December of 1994, Hont was again sentenced, this time for selling cocaine and paying off on video poker machines at a bar he operated.
February 12, 1982
Wilkinsburg Police shot and killed Duwayne Dixon in a routine drug sweep. They first claimed that he pulled a gun and fired on them. Later, police stated that, though Dixon had a gun, he didn’t shoot; rather, as they grabbed him, the gun fell to the ground and went off. Dixon’s mother said that her son was handcuffed at the time of the shooting and his death was nothing short of an execution. Wilkinsburg Police chief Daniel Rearick stated that Dixon was not handcuffed at the scene.
August 12, 1993
Anthony Walton, Jr, 33 years old, was shot and killed by an off-duty McKeesport police officer. Officer Javan Wilson, III, was outside a bar in McKeesport when Walton nearly drove his car into another McKeesport officer. Walton’s blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit. Wilson got in his car and chased Walton through McKeesport, across the Duquesne Bridge and into Dravosburg. Wilson fired seven shots at Walton, two of which struck and killed him. A coroner’s jury recommended involuntary manslaughter charges be brought against officer Wilson. He was acquitted in August 1994.
November 20, 1993
Maneia “Stoney” Bey was shot and killed by police in East Liberty. Eighteen officers were called to the scene. Bey was shot while running from the police. The coroner’s reports state that 13 bullets struck Bey in the back. According to the Post-Gazette, after hearing from 33 witnesses over two days, a coroner’s jury voted (4-2) to recommend no charges be filed against six officers who fired at Bey.
April 28, 1985
Anthony Starks, 30, of Rockville, Maryland, died after being restrained by city police in an East Liberty apartment building where he had been smoking cocaine and drinking with friends. Police admitted striking Starks on the face and hands, while other witnesses testified that police kicked him in the head and abdomen and beat him with nightsticks. Deputy Coroner Arthur G. Gilkes Jr. ruled that Starks’ death while in police custody was accidental. Gilkes concurred with a forensic pathologist who said blunt force trauma played no part in Starks’ death — the probable cause was cocaine abuse and heart disease.
April 6, 1995 — The Pursuit and Death
of Jerry Jackson
Jerry Jackson was killed in a barrage of bullets in the Armstrong Tunnels after a car chase. At least 51 rounds were fired and Jackson was shot 14 times. Thirteen of the bullets which struck Jackson were fired by Pittsburgh Housing Authority officer John Charmo.
An initial investigation cleared Charmo, but a second investigation, including a second inquest by Cyril Wecht, led to DA Stephen Zappala filing charges. That second investigation only happened because Jerry’s mother, Ina, filed a civil lawsuit. During Discovery, it was discovered that a trove of evidence had been suppressed and that disputed Charmo’s claims of self-defense. He alleged that Jackson had managed to turn his car around inside the tunnel. Twice. But wheel markings in the Armstrong Tunnels from Jackson’s car invalidated that specific claim. On the evening of Jackson’s death, the city’s top accident recreation specialist was sent away from the scene by then-Homicide Commander Ron Freeman. The reconstructionist, who testified that he knew Charmo’s story was a lie, was not allowed to examine the deep tire tracks made by the rim of Jackson’s vehicle. A poor-quality video was taken but was never presented to a coroner’s inquest jury. During Charmo’s trial, nearly all detectives on the scene that night testified that they didn’t believe Charmo’s story but claimed they didn’t tell a superior or the D.A.’s office because they were allegedly never asked.
The Housing Authority officer fired at Jackson with unauthorized Black Talon hollow-point bullets. [In 1993, in an unprecedented move, the Winchester company limited sales of the Black Talon to law enforcement only. These bullets were manufactured to expand on impact, exposing sharp edges to maximize damage to human flesh.]
Charmo pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter charges on October 11, 2001. He was sentenced to more than 11 months, but because of time served and credit for good behavior, he was home that year by Christmas.
October 12, 1995 — The Murder of
“I‘m 31. I’m only 31.”
On October 12, 1995, Jonny Gammage was driving north on Route 51, headed home to his Moon Township apartment. He was driving a 1988 Jaguar that belonged to his cousin, Ray Seals, a defensive end with the Steelers.
Brentwood Police Lieutenant Milton Mulholland started tailing him. Mulholland later testified that the car had an expired Florida registration, but according to Jean Kessner, a reporter who covered the trial for WIXT Syracuse (Gammage’s hometown), Mulholland said he thought it was suspicious for someone driving a luxury car to go 10 miles under the speed limit. That was his reason for pulling Gammage over.
Gammage drove for a bit before pulling over and Mulholland called for backup. Brentwood officer John Vojtas responded, as did Whitehall Borough Sergeant Keith Henderson, who was close by. Gammage pulled the Jag over near Frank and Shirley’s diner on Route 51, just inside City of Pittsburgh limits.
When Henderson arrived, Mulholland was standing at the driver’s side window of the Jag talking to Gammage. Henderson shined his flashlight into the car and saw Gammage on his cell phone inside. He drew his weapon. Vojtas arrived and likewise drew his weapon and began yelling at Gammage to get out of the car.
Gammage got out of the car, his cell phone and date book still in hand. Vojtas knocked the items to the ground using his flashlight and, according to the officers’ testimony, Vojtas raised his flashlight and Gammage knocked it from his hand. Vojtas and Henderson tackled Gammage and wrestled him to the ground. Mulholland joined in, helping to pin him down. By this point, officers Michael Albert and Shawn Patterson, of the Baldwin and Whitehall Police departments, respectively, arrived and also got involved.
The officers held Gammage down and one or more of them hit him with flashlights. He was eventually handcuffed and, though cuffed, Henderson and Patterson continued to hold him face-down on the ground. One officer sat on his legs and the other held his upper body down.
Within seven minutes, Gammage was dead.
The autopsy by the Allegheny County medical examiner concluded that Gammage died of “positional asphyxia.” Which is to say, the pressure on the young man’s back and neck as he was being held face-down made it impossible for him to breathe. His death was ruled a homicide and a coroner’s jury recommended homicide charges be brought against all five officers. Instead, the Allegheny County district attorney, Bob Colville, charged Mullholland, Albert and Vojtas with the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.
The case against Mulholland and Albert ended in two mistrials and the case was dismissed. Vojtas was acquitted by an all-white jury.
Pittsburghers old enough to remember Gammage’s tragic killing couldn’t help but hear his echoes when George Floyd was killed by the police in Minneapolis on May 25 of this year.
Jonny Gammage was just 31 years old.
February 8, 1997
Gerald Potter, 19, was killed by off-duty Pittsburgh police officer Fred Crawford, Jr. in the Small Wood Bar in Homewood, after he displayed an unloaded gun. Witnesses said that Potter had the gun, but that Crawford never identified himself as Pittsburgh police, as he claimed, and that he was wearing a checked flannel jacket over his uniform, so it wasn’t obvious he was the police.
Though the deputy coroner ruled Crawford was justified when he shot and killed Potter, he also found Crawford’s version of events was not believable. Deputy coroner Timothy Uhlrich stated, “I find no credibility in the testimony of Mr. Crawford.”
April 1997 — Pittsburgh Police enter into
Federal Consent Decree
In April of 1997, a Consent Decree to restructure the City of Pittsburgh Police Department was entered into after the ACLU filed a 1996 class-action lawsuit against the Pittsburgh Police.
The US Justice Department intervened to restructure the city’s police department and its citizen complaint system. Pittsburgh had been sued more than 100 times for police civil rights violations during the 1990s, the head of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said in an interview with the Washington Post. Justice Department officials said it was the content and pattern of suits in Pittsburgh — not the quantity — that prompted federal intervention.
On July 15th, the Citizen Police Review Board opened its doors to community complaints as part of the Consent Decree.
This was the first such consent decree of its kind in the nation and it was hoped that it might be a model for other police departments. While the decree was in place, Pittsburgh curtailed strip searches, began documenting traffic stops, gave officers ‘cultural diversity’ training and tracked civilian complaints. The New York Times reports that, from the outset: “the police union balked, warning of ‘more drive-by shootings, more drugs’ and a spike in crime.”
December 21, 1998
Deron Grimmit was killed in the Hill District by Pittsburgh police officer Jeffrey Cooperstein. Grimmit, 32, slowed down his car as he passed police officers making a drug arrest. Police said they sought to detain him to ask why he slowed down.
Cooperstein claimed he was afraid Grimmit would run over him with his car and that he fired in self-defense. A coroner’s inquest established that Grimmitt was shot through the passenger side window, not head-on, as might be expected if he were driving toward the officer. Cooperstein fired four rounds into the side window of Grimmit’s car. The shot that killed Grimmit hit him on the left side of the head, just above his ear.
Cooperstein was a frequent and vocal contributor to the Blue Knight website, posting angry diatribes against a variety of targets, including Pittsburgh Police Chief Robert W.McNeilly, Jr. The Blue Knight webpage routinely blasted the department and defended the five white suburban officers who suffocated Jonny Gammage.
[Cooperstein’s Blue Knight alter ego became a focal point in his trial: prosecutors claimed Cooperstein himself was the creator and moderator of the site, not just a person posting comments; he would neither confirm nor deny that he was The Blue Knight.]
In February of 2000, a jury acquitted Cooperstein of homicide in the shooting of Deron Grimmit. In May of that year, the city made payments of $61,000 (back pay) and $150,000 (medical disability) to Cooperstein to get him off the force.
The 1997 federal consent decree expires.
August 26, 2006
During a traffic stop at Kentucky and Negley Avenues for an expired inspection sticker on Pamela Lawton’s car, police officer Eric Tatsuko allegedly pulled a gun on the unarmed woman and reportedly pointed it at her 7-year-old daughter. Joseph K. Williams, attorney for Lawton, contended that the officer threatened to “blow [her daughter’s] brains out.” Because Lawton’s insurance and registration weren’t current, her car was towed and she was cited. Weeks after the incident, Lawton received another citation for disorderly conduct. She was acquitted.
May 6, 2008
Justin Jackson, 19 years old, was fatally shot by a Pittsburgh police officer along Arlington Avenue in Mount Oliver. Police said Jackson had a gun in his hands and that the officer released his K-9 partner to subdue him. Police said Mr. Jackson shot the dog dead and the officers returned fire.
Jackson’s family disputed the police account and maintained that the teenager did not have a gun. At Jackson’s funeral, Bishop Otis L. Carswell said, “There needs to be a reformation in our city, a straightening of something that is not quite right. The status quo can no longer work in our city. No more business as usual in our city.”
January 12, 2010 — The Beating of Jordan Miles
Around 11 p.m., Jordan Miles was walking from his mom’s house to his grandmother’s house. An unmarked car pulled up behind him. A man jumped out and asked him to hand over the drugs and hand over his gun. He turned to run. He slipped and fell on the ice. Two other men got out of the car. He struggled with them, but they administered a beating. He thought he was going to die. Eventually, they clicked handcuffs on him.
A police van arrived and they loaded him into it. Until the uniformed cops arrived, Miles says he didn’t know the men were police. The police assert that they told him they were police from the jump. And they were certain Miles had a gun on him, that he was acting furtively, and his one coat pocket was heavier than the other. They didn’t find a gun on him and despite searching and re-searching the area, they never found a gun.
They charged the 18-year-old CAPA senior with aggravated assault and resisting arrest.
Eventually, Miles was taken to jail and able to call his mom. His mom and grandmother came to pick him up. By this point, his face was so swollen and bruised his mother barely recognized him.
Two months after the incident, the charges against Miles were dropped at a preliminary hearing, a highly unusual event. District Attorney Zappala could have re-filed the charges against Miles and the FOP wanted him to, but he didn’t. He also didn’t charge the three police officers, after an investigation by his office. The FBI investigated as well but chose not to charge the officers.
Miles sued the police and the city in federal court. During the trial, lawyers representing the officers took turns calling Miles’ character into question and belittling him at every opportunity.
Pittsburgh Current Editor Charlie Deitch wrote at the time: “Jordan Miles’ eye is not swollen shut, this time. There is no knot on his head. His hair hasn’t been ripped out. But after watching the three-week-long trial in his civil-rights lawsuit against three Pittsburgh police officers, it’s hard not to feel like he’s been battered all over again.”
After two civil trials, Miles was given a settlement of $125,000.00. (Read about a new book that thoroughly examines the Miles case here.)
November 12, 2012 — The Shooting of Leon Ford
Leon Ford was shot multiple times during a traffic stop in Highland Park. Ford was pulled over by two officers who mistook him for a suspect with a similar name. They thought he might be Lamont Ford, a member of a violent street gang.
Nineteen years old at the time, Leon Ford handed over his license, insurance, and registration, as requested. Later, during the civil trial in Federal Court, he testified that the officers seemed fixated on the idea that he was Lamont, even though he was no relation to him, had no connection to him, and his papers all identified him as Leon Ford, not Lamont Ford.
When officer David Derbish arrived at the scene, he said that he saw a bulge in Ford’s pocket that he thought was a gun and Ford was reaching that way. He jumped into the car, very much in violation of police protocol. The engine was still running. According to the officer, Ford grabbed the gearshift and he grabbed Ford’s hand with his left hand. The car took off.
Detective Derbish drew his gun and shot Ford five times. The car crashed into a porch a few yards away. The police arrested Ford for aggravated assault. One of the bullets pierced Leon Ford’s spine and he was paralyzed.
District Attorney Stephen Zappala pushed forward with prosecuting Ford. The jury acquitted him in 2014 of the most serious charges and deadlocked on five others. He will not be retried
Pittsburgh settled a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Ford for $5.5 million in January of 2018.
Since his shooting, Ford has become an outspoken critic of police brutality and the systemic racism that exists in the Criminal Justice System. He now travels the country telling his story.
During a traffic stop on the North Side, Anthony Kenney says he was beaten and pistol-whipped by Pittsburgh Police officer Matthew Turko. A federal jury awarded Kenney $105,000 in compensatory and punitive damages after a trial in July 2014.
June 26, 2013
Dennis Henderson was standing outside a building in Homewood. He was talking to journalist Rossano Stewart after attending a meeting about police and community relations. A police car came past at a high speed. Henderson said something about it. The officer doubled back, threatened both men and arrested them. Other police who arrived identified Stewart as media and he was released. They took Henderson to jail and charged him with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. DA Zappala dropped the charges a few weeks later.
April 14, 2014
Adrian Williams was killed when he was shot six times as he was running away from a Pittsburgh Police Officer. He was in possession of a handgun at the time. Williams was hit twice in the back of the shoulder, under his left arm, under and through his right arm, and above his buttocks. He died at the scene.
March 3, 2015
Churchill Police Officer Steve Shaulis verbally abused 15 year-old Woodland Hills student, Ahmad Williams in the lobby of Woodland Hills High School where Williams was a student. The officer then arrested Williams for disorderly conduct, put him in a chokehold, slammed him to the ground and shocked him with a Taser — twice. There is evidence dating back to 2009 that officer Shaulis was violent and abusive to other students at Woodland Hills, with video of him tasering a student. A civil case was brought in Federal Court on behalf of multiple students which settled for more than one-half million dollars.
January 31, 2016
Bruce Kelley, Jr. was killed when more than eight officers responded to a call in Wilkinsburg. Kelley first encountered Port Authority police for the crime of drinking in public at a gazebo. He tried to get away — he was on probation on a burglary charge and was afraid of being sent back to lock-up. He was pepper-sprayed and tasered. He stabbed a K-9 officer. He was shot eight times. Tim Stevens, the chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project, said an incident that started with a man accused of drinking a beer in public, “shouldn’t end with that man dead.”
February 11, 2018
Mark Daniels was shot and killed by Pittsburgh police in Homewood. The police say they were alerted to an ‘actor with a gun.’ The Allegheny County Police Homicide unit investigated the shooting and stated that the Pittsburgh police were simply alerted to a ‘man acting suspiciously,’ rather than a man ‘with a gun.’ Both departments claim that Daniels fired at the officers and noted the bullet holes in a nearby downspout to back this up. Daniels retreated. The shot that killed him hit him in the back of the arm as he fled. Daniels’ family maintains that he never fired on the officers. This was the third shooting in less than a year involving officer Gino Macioce, although the previous two shootings were not fatal. Mayor Bill Peduto said those shootings were proper and justified.
June 19, 2018 — The Killing of Antwon Rose
Seventeen-year-old Antwon Rose ran from the police when the car he was riding in was pulled over in East Pittsburgh. Police officer Michael Rosfeld shot Rose three times as he fled. Rosfeld had pulled over the car because it matched the description of one that was involved in a drive-by shooting in Braddock which had happened just 10 minutes earlier.
Antwon Rose was unarmed. Rosfeld shot him three times.
Just hours earlier. Rosfeld had been sworn in as an East Pittsburgh officer, though he had experience with other departments — Oakmont, Harmar Township and the University of Pittsburgh Police. He left the Pitt job after “discrepancies were found between one of his sworn statements and evidence in an arrest.”
On June 26, 2018, Rosfeld was arrested and charged with criminal homicide in the killing of Antwon Rose. DA Stephen Zappala said Rosfeld intentionally shot Rose to death, even though the teen “didn’t do anything in furtherance” of a crime in North Braddock or East Pittsburgh.
“It’s an intentional act and there’s no justification for it,” Zappala said during a news conference at the time. “You do not shoot somebody in the back if they are not a threat to you.”
At trial, prosecutors argued that Rosfeld gave inconsistent statements about the shooting, including whether or not he thought Rose had a gun.
On March 22, 2019, after four days of testimony, Michael Rosfeld was acquitted.
In November 2018, the Borough of East Pittsburgh disbanded its police department. In January of 2020, Michael Rosfeld sued the University of Pittsburgh for his January 2018 firing. In August, 2020, that case was dismissed by a Federal Judge.
December 22, 2019
The Wilkinsburg police were called to a dispute at the corner of Penn and Wood and told that there was a man with a gun threatening another man. When they arrived, they spotted a man about two blocks from the intersection who they thought matched the description they were given of the man with the gun. There was a brief foot chase. Police say that the man turned and fired at them and they returned fire.
Romir “Rome” Talley, 24 years old, was shot seven times and died at the scene.
Talley’s family questioned the shooting. Paul Jubas, the attorney for Talley’s family, called out the Wilkinsburg PD for not having dashcams or body cams. He also said the shooting was a case of mistaken identity — that Romir Talley was not the man with the gun at the corner that police were called to and that he ran rather than interact with police. Jubas further stated that he has evidence that Talley did not fire the first shot.
At a vigil held for Talley, Olivia Bennett, an Allegheny County Councilwoman said this incident “… is yet another example of needed police oversight,” and called for a county-wide citizens police review board.
Summer and Fall, 2020 –Brand New Protests Bring Same Police Reaction
On June 16, the Pittsburgh Current ran a story titled: “Nothing New: Attempts At Much-Needed Police Reform In Pa. Pre-Date George Floyd’s Death.” It came less than a month after Floyd’s May 25th streetside suffocation at the hands of Minneapolis Police officers.
Specifically, the story referred to “new” police reform initiatives that were moving through the Pennsylvania legislature. But the fact is that a group of local Pa. House members, including Summer Lee, Ed Gainey, and Jake Wheatley, sought reforms back in 2018 after the killing of Antwon Rose and redoubled their efforts again after the cop who killed Rose was found not guilty.
But, “nothing new” can also be applied to Floyd’s death and the protests and calls for justice which have been demanded in the streets, along with the needlessly aggressive and violent tactics used by police against protesters.
Sadly, what has happened in this city since protests began on May 30th over the death of George Floyd and the systemic racism in our criminal justice system that has allowed acts like this to continue, featured the usual oppressive tactics that police always employ.
On May 30th, a peaceful march and protest over Floyd’s death were met by squadrons of officers in riot gear from the beginning of the event. A police car was burned and marchers engaged in acts of civil disobedience, as people have for decades when protesting for change. Pittsburgh Police used tear gas on protesters. Oftentimes the canisters were fired directly at crowds, striking and injuring many. Less lethal projectiles were also used indiscriminately. Many demonstrators were injured, some seriously, including a photographer whose lips were shot off by a projectile.
On June 1st, at a protest in East Liberty, police were even more aggressive and ordered crowds to disperse, then used violent action when they refused. Again, protesters were shot with projectiles, both as they stood still with hands up and as they tried to flee the area. Tear gas was also used that day, even though police officers denied it and Mayor Bill Peduto backed them. A class-action lawsuit has been filed against the city which maintains that the police escalated “a peaceful protest into a scene of pandemonium, panic, violence and bloodshed” and then “disseminated flagrant lies to conceal and/or justify the PBP’s shameless use of force against peaceful protesters.”
Protests have continued. In recent weeks, protesters have been demonstrating outside the home of Mayor Peduto. On the second night, the Mayor spoke to protesters on his porch; however, those talks broke down. With continued visits to his home, Peduto said on Twitter: “continual denial of law, will end up in arrests. Actions have consequences.”