FOP attorney: New photos show different side of Pittsburgh PrideFest police encounter

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Photos and surveillance footage obtained during Pittsburgh‘‍s investigation of a clash between a police officer and a woman at PrideFest show the arrest in a different light than a 14-second video that went viral after the June 15 incident, the police union’‍s attorney said Friday night. 

“The photos are frozen in time and exactly what she did is there, and it backs up what the officer said,” said Bryan Campbell, attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police.

A video clip showed Officer Souroth Chatterji, 29, push Ariel Lawther, 19, of Harmony and punch her several times. He wrote in a criminal complaint that she hit a man preaching against gay marriage before striking the officer.

The Pittsburgh Office of Municipal Investigations obtained surveillance video from near 6th Street and Liberty Avenue showing Ms. Lawther push the protester, Mr. Campbell said. 

“Ariel obviously assaults one of the preachers,” he said. “It‘‍s real apparent. You see the guy, and he goes flying backward.”

Mr. Campbell said investigators found at least seven professional-quality photos showing Ms. Lawther grabbed the officer’‍s forearm, hit him and stood nose-to-nose with the uniformed officer, he said. Ms. Lawther had said “she was in a ‘‍rage’‍” and didn‘‍t realize he was an officer, according to the complaint.

Officer Chatterji wrote that he punched her in the stomach several times to defuse “the situation quickly before [he] was attacked by the crowd” and to distract her long enough to handcuff her. 

Mr. Campbell said according to policy, the officer was allowed to go one step above the level of resistance he met, which could have been a closed fist, pepper spray or a Taser. 

“He didn’‍t strike her in the head,” Mr. Campbell said. “He struck her in the stomach. You have to understand: that’‍s done intentionally, that solved the problem, that‘‍s what the training is. The public sees a little clip, ’‍Oh, a male officer hit a woman, that‘‍s not right.’‍ Well, that is right, given the situation and what she was doing.”

“He is a reasonably well-trained officer and did exactly what he was supposed to do,” Mr. Campbell said.

Steven Barth, Ms. Lawther's civil attorney, said he has not seen the photos or video.

"I would like to be able to see those items and compare them with what I've been able to get off social media and get to the bottom of this," he said.

Her criminal defense attorney did not respond to requests for comment Friday night.

Police charged Ms. Lawther with aggravated and simple assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. She is also awaiting a preliminary hearing in Butler County on charges filed in November 2013 that she assaulted her mother.

Officer Chatterji was recently interviewed by OMI, Mr. Campbell said, and received copies of the photos. He could not be reached for comment Friday night. Mr. Campbell said the interview indicates the investigation is likely coming to a close, though they still have to write a report of findings.

Mayor Bill Peduto released a statement Thursday: “At this time, the investigation has progressed and is ongoing. The officer who is the subject of the investigation will remain off-patrol until OMI has completed their work.”

The Citizen Police Review Board is conducting a separate investigation of the encounter, executive director Elizabeth Pittinger said.

Ms. Lawther‘‍s was the only arrest during the annual 10-day LGBT PrideFest, which hosted 100,000 people Downtown, Delta Foundation president Gary Van Horn said. He said the he hopes to figure out what happened and prevent it from happening at future events.

“We want to keep participants safe and also keep protesters safe,” Mr. Van Horn said. “They have their right to speak like we have our right to speak. We respect that.”

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