PITTSBURGH – This morning, Pittsburgh City Council approved a settlement in a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania against the city of Pittsburgh and one of its police officers. The plaintiffs, three African-American Pittsburgh residents, including a constable, were subjected to police harassment and threatened with arrest after they prevented a fight from breaking out in their Oakland neighborhood.
“There are some citizens who care about what happens in their neighborhoods and are willing to step up and try to stop the violence,” said Teresa Brown, one of the plaintiffs. “I hope that this settlement will lead to improvements in police-community relations.”
On September 28, 2013, Oakland resident Brown, her daughter Monica Jackson, and her neighbor Anthony Grace were on Brown’s porch when they witnessed several young men across the street who looked like they were about to start fighting. Brown walked over and defused the situation.
When Pittsburgh Police Officer Elizabeth Vitalbo arrived on the scene, Brown explained what had happened, but Vitalbo accused her of lying and threatened to arrest her. Brown informed Vitalbo that she was a constable, and 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, approximately seven police cars carrying 15-20 police officers arrived at Brown’s home. One of the officers grabbed and slammed Grace against the porch railing and then vigorously frisked him. Brown, Jackson, and Grace were detained for an hour, and none were issued citations.
Five months later and after filing complaints about Vitalbo’s behavior with city agencies, all three received disorderly conduct citations for unreasonable noise. They were found not guilty after a summary trial in Pittsburgh Municipal Court.
“The First Amendment protects the public’s right to record police performing their official duties,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “We are grateful that the city chose to settle this case, and we encourage the city to adopt a policy that recognizes the public’s right to record police and to implement training for its officers. Police officers must be made aware of the public’s right to record them as they carry out their duties in public.”
In July 2017, the ACLU of Pennsylvania won a federal appeals court case that recognized a First Amendment right to record police as they work in public. The ruling was issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which includes Pennsylvania, in two cases that involved the Philadelphia Police Department.
The Pittsburgh case was settled for $40,000, including attorneys’ fees. 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.