PITTSBURGH - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of three African-American Pittsburgh residents, including a constable, who were verbally abused by a police officer, threatened with arrest for attempting to record the interaction, and, months later, falsely charged with disorderly conduct in retaliation for filing complaints with official city agencies.
“I've never felt so humiliated and disrespected in my life," said Teresa Brown, a constable and one of the plaintiffs in the case. "I don't expect to be treated this way from someone who is supposed to protect me."
On the evening of Saturday, September 28, 2013, Oakland residents Teresa Brown, her daughter Monica Jackson, and her neighbor Anthony Grace witnessed several young men fighting across the street from Brown’s home. Brown walked over and diffused the fight. Soon afterwards, Pittsburgh Police Officer Elizabeth Vitalbo, who is white, arrived on the scene in response to a call about the fight from a neighbor. Brown explained the situation, but Vitalbo accused her of lying about where the fight took place and threatened to arrest her. Brown informed Vitalbo that she was a constable and asked why Vitalbo would arrest her. Vitalbo responded, “I don’t give a shit who you are.”
Concerned by Vitalbo’s aggressive behavior, Jackson attempted to record the incident but stopped after Vitalbo threatened her with arrest. Soon after, about seven police cars carrying 15-20 police officers arrived at Brown’s home. One of the officers approached the porch, grabbed Grace, and then slammed him up against the porch railing. The officer ordered Grace to put his hands behind his head, vigorously frisked him, and ordered Grace to sit down. Grace complied and remained seated. The officers left after an hour.
No citations were issued at the time to any of the people present. Five months after the incident, the three received disorderly conduct citations for unreasonable noise after filing complaints about Vitalbo’s behavior with the Office of Municipal Investigations and the Citizens Police Review Board. After a summary trial in Pittsburgh Municipal Court, Brown, Jackson, and Grace were found not guilty.
“This incident reflects the unfortunate and unconstitutional custom and practice of Pittsburgh police unnecessarily and illegally misusing their authority to intimidate and coerce innocent, law-abiding civilians who question or challenge the improper police behavior, ”said Tim O’Brien, a volunteer attorney representing the plaintiffs.
According to the lawsuit, Vitalbo’s actions are representative of a widespread practice by Pittsburgh police officers of misusing their authority to escalate tensions during what are innocuous interactions with law-abiding civilians. The lawsuit also alleges that Vitalbo’s threat to arrest Jackson for recording the police is a direct result of the city of Pittsburgh’s failure to adopt a policy recognizing citizens’ First Amendment right to record police and to train its police officers about the right to record.
“The ability to record police is a vital check on the power of the police,” said Reggie Shuford, ACLU-PA executive director. “Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police has failed to train its police officers to understand that individuals have a First Amendment right to record them while performing their duties in public.”
The case isBrown v. Vitalbo. The plaintiffs are represented by Sara Rose and Witold Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and volunteer counsel Tim O’Brien.
More information about the case, including a copy of the complaint, is available at: www.aclupa.org/brown