Officer shown hitting woman in video is taken off street during investigation



Pittsburgh officials took a police officer off the streets Monday and promised a fair review after video surfaced of him punching a woman during an arrest at PrideFest.

The 14-second video shows Officer Souroth Chatterji 29, push Ariel Lawther, 19, of Harmony and then pans away. It then shows the officer punch Ms. Lawther several times while a woman screams, “What are you doing?”

Officer Chatterji wrote in court documents that Ms. Lawther hit a man preaching against gay marriage Sunday before she struck the officer. When reached at her home Monday night, Ariel Lawther -- who was arrested and released earlier in the day --- declined comment through her mother, who identified herself as Mrs. Lawther.

Video shows PrideFest confrontation

An LGBT advocacy group, referencing a video making the rounds on Twitter, is calling for a review of an incident in which a Pittsburgh police officer apparently punched a woman during PrideFest. (6/16/2014)

The video gained attention after local LGBT advocacy group the Delta Foundation called for an internal investigation and a federal review of the incident.

The video provides the first real test of how acting public safety director Stephen A. Bucar and Mayor Bill Peduto will address claims of excessive force by officers. It comes four days after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about video surfacing in a 2012 arrest during which a Pittsburgh police officer hit a man in the head with a pistol following a car chase.

“I just want to reassure the people that this is a new day. We won't look the other way when incidents like this happen. And we want to assure everybody — and that includes both the public and the police — that we want fairness,” Mr. Peduto said at a news conference.

Mr. Peduto said Officer Chatterji, who joined the force in August 2012, had been transferred to the police bureau’s warrant office for 30 days while the Office of Municipal Investigations reviews the incident. During that time, he will be suspended “from any other outside duties while the investigation continues,” the mayor said.

Officer Howard McQuillan, president of the Pittsburgh police union, said after he watched the video that Officer Chatterji “was obviously assaulted.” He said he hopes officials will reserve judgment until their review is complete and that they conduct their investigation swiftly.

“Something like this doesn't take 30 days to figure out,” Officer McQuillan said.

The Citizen Police Review Board has opened its own inquiry, and the Delta Foundation said it contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office “to also inform them of the incident and launch a potential hate crime investigation.” Officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and for the FBI declined to comment.

Eric Moure, 36, of McKeesport said he and several others were preaching Sunday against the mayor’s decision to perform same-sex marriages during PrideFest, the annual LGBT community festival.

At some point, Ms. Lawther approached the preachers near the corner of Sixth Street and Liberty Avenue. Shortly after 4 p.m., things escalated.

“She continued to scream real loud to the point where she just snapped and shoved me real hard,” Mr. Moure said. Officer Chatterji — who Mr. Moure described as “a smaller guy in size” — tried to break things up.

Officer Chatterji, who did not respond to a request for comment, wrote in a criminal complaint that he stepped between Mr. Moure and Ms. Lawther, and Ms. Lawther struck him in the chest and groin.

“Due to the proximity of Lawther to myself and the crowd I tried to push her into an open area where she could be handcuffed,” Officer Chatterji wrote. He pushed Ms. Lawther in the upper chest or neck area, he wrote, and he was then struck in the groin and shin “which caused me to fear for my safety in the crowd” of about 50 people.

He wrote that Ms. Lawther grabbed his chest and belt area “in an attempt to injure me” and he was stuck in the head from behind and became dazed. He wrote that Ms. Lawther pulled away from him and he punched her in the stomach several times to defuse “the situation quickly before I was attacked by the crowd.”

He wrote that after she was handcuffed, Ms. Lawther said, “I’m sorry I did not see you were a cop. I am sorry I hit you.”

Police charged Ms. Lawther with aggravated and simple assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Ms. Lawther is currently awaiting a preliminary hearing on charges that she assaulted her mother in Butler County Nov. 29.

Mr. Moure said he understood why the officer acted the way he did and that the video shows only a small portion of what led up to the punches.

“She was becoming more than he could handle, and I think he was afraid of pretty much getting beaten up right there,” Mr. Moure said.

Pittsburgh police policy allows officers to protect themselves if they are being attacked by using one level of force beyond what is being used on them.

Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, said she was particularly interested in the time that elapsed between when Officer Chatterji moved Ms. Lawther out of the crowd and when he began hitting her.

“He was getting all jostled around on the side. When you get her out in the open, that’s not the time to retaliate and hit her,” Ms. Pittinger said. “That’s what I’m very much interested in clarifying — why he felt at that point it was necessary.”

Read more: LGBT discrimination laws still in effect in Pennsylvania


Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil. Emma Brown contributed. First Published June 16, 2014 10:24 AM


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