Jordan Miles' civil trial against police has big consequences

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When Jordan Miles' swollen face hit newspapers and TV screens after his encounter with three Pittsburgh police officers on a bitter January night 2 1/2 years ago, public impressions froze as hard as ice.

Some promptly concluded that the police must have done something terribly wrong for a high school kid to end up like that.

Others deduced that Mr. Miles had to have made a grievous error to provoke well-trained city officers to use force.

Starting this week, some sunlight will be shed on the encounter that night in Homewood in the form of a civil trial in which the officers and Mr. Miles are expected to testify. The verdict could affect the city's checkbook, the police bureau's procedures and community impressions of law enforcement.

"It's crucial to police-community relations to have this incident publicly aired," said Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the city's Citizen Police Review Board.

The trial could last three weeks, including testimony from the four people involved in the encounter and others who witnessed the aftermath or talked with those involved -- doctors and experts on policing and economics.

Jury selection is scheduled to start today. U.S. District Chief Judge Gary L. Lancaster last week decided to choose eight jurors using a public process of elimination and private questioning of prospective panelists' attitudes toward race and police. Mr. Miles is black, the officers white.

The jurors face a difficult job.

"Jordan is not a young man with a criminal record," said David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor involved in police-community relations. He was an honors student and classical musician. "It's exactly the kind of young person that the community wants to produce."

The three officers, he added, "are esteemed in the law enforcement community, at the very least, and they are honor students of another sort."

The trial may make no one happy, he noted. "At least if there is an airing of the evidence, and citizens can look at it and say yea or nay, it's some sort of a public verdict."

'Let's check that guy out'

Mr. Miles' account of events has been widely publicized: Then an 18-year-old senior at Pittsburgh School for Creative and Performing Arts, he was walking the one block from his mother's house to his grandmother's when three men jumped out of an unmarked car, chased him down and beat him.

The officers' recollections of the incident haven't been publicized to the same extent. Officers David Sisak, Michael Saldutte and Richard Ewing remained silent as they faced the possibility of prosecution until May, when Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. announced that he would not charge them with crimes. Since then, with the civil trial approaching, their attorneys have declined to say much.

In the spring of 2010, though, they gave separate, detailed statements to FBI Agent Sonia Bush. They told her that they met in the police academy in 2005 and volunteered for the 99 car program, in which plainclothes officers use unmarked cars to gather intelligence and back up regular patrols. They often are credited with taking more guns off the street than the rest of the bureau combined.

About 11 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2010, they were acting on a tip of drug dealing near a church on Tioga Street. According to Agent Bush's account, Officer Saldutte saw someone near 7940 Tioga and said, "Let's check that guy out. Let's see what he's doing."

The officers said they drove near Mr. Miles and ordered him to take his hands out of his pockets, which he did. They asked him whether he lived at 7940 Tioga, and he said no. They asked him why he was there, but he walked away, then ran, they said, and Officer Saldutte saw a bulge in his jacket.

The officers told Agent Bush that they yelled, "Pittsburgh police, stop!" Officer Saldutte said he jumped out of the car and gave chase, as Mr. Miles fell on the ice, hitting his face on the sidewalk.

Officer Saldutte said he grabbed Mr. Miles, but Mr. Miles elbowed him in the head, so he let go. Officer Sisak then tackled Mr. Miles, crashing through trash cans and into bushes. A rearward "donkey kick" by Mr. Miles to Officer Sisak's knee sent the officer to the ground.

Officers Saldutte and Ewing then got both of Mr. Miles' arms, but the young man managed to get one or both hands under his body, they told Agent Bush. They punched him in the torso and thighs. One officer recalled Mr. Miles saying, "You are not taking me to jail!" while another recounted that he said, "I just want to go home."

Officer Saldutte cuffed Mr. Miles' right wrist, but the young man reached for his waist, and they thought he was trying to get a gun, they told Agent Bush. Officer Sisak punched him two or three times to the head, and a knee strike to the head from Officer Ewing ended the struggle.

Officer Saldutte found a Mountain Dew bottle, which they concluded had caused the bulge in Mr. Miles' jacket, they told Agent Bush. Officer Saldutte said he tossed it away because he didn't view it as evidence of a crime. Mr. Miles' attorneys said that there was no bottle, but if there was one, then police wilfully destroyed that evidence.

Monica Wooding, who lived at 7940 Tioga, then came out and told the officers that she did not know Mr. Miles, they told Agent Bush. At a later preliminary hearing, though, Ms. Wooding told the judge that she knew Mr. Miles well, contradicting the police account of her statements at the scene. Charges against Mr. Miles of aggravated assault, loitering, resisting arrest and escape were dismissed.

Officer Sisak, who was taken to Mercy Hospital after the incident, told Agent Bush that his colleagues did a shoddy job of investigating the scene of the altercation, allowing controversy to fester. They initially misidentified Ms. Wooding, failed to recover a flashlight and handcuffs that were dropped and lost the bottle. "He indicated the controversy over the Mountain Dew bottle was Saldutte's fault," Agent Bush wrote.

Officer Saldutte, she wrote, squarely blamed Mr. Miles. The officer "has no idea why Miles resisted so frantically. Saldutte said he would not do anything differently if he had another chance. Saldutte is confused about the controversy he finds himself in, because he believes he did things the same way he always does."

Impetus for change

To Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project, the details of the incident don't matter. "When you see those pictures [of Mr. Miles' battered face], it's almost like, I don't want to hear an explanation of why this young man, an honor student at CAPA ... a young man of slight build, why he ended up hospitalized."

The pictures spurred more outrage about policing than Mr. Stevens had seen since the 1995 death of Jonny Gammage in a Brentwood traffic stop. Activists were determined to channel the emotion and force change. "We want the probability of those incidents to be lessened, hopefully significantly," he said.

Students and activists protested outside of Pittsburgh City Council. Negotiations between civic leaders, police representatives and council led to the passage of legislation authored by Councilman Ricky Burgess to put video cameras in patrol cars, move the bureau toward accreditation, toughen discipline and require reporting of stop-and-frisk encounters and other police techniques.

Allegheny County Councilman Bill Robinson has proposed the creation of a county police review board, similar to the city's -- a plan that he said is "very timely" in light of the Jordan Miles trial.

U.S. Attorney David Hickton, who opted not to charge the officers federally, has convened meetings between law enforcement brass and community leaders aimed at improving understanding. Mr. Harris, who is managing the process, said it is inching toward making policy recommendations.

The dialogue that has bloomed under the cloud of Tioga Street won't wither regardless of the trial's result, Mr. Stevens predicted. Any verdict will, however, echo on the streets.

"If Jordan gets a decision positive to his perspective, I think it will give some sense of solace to the community at large," Mr. Stevens said, "that some level of justice was handed out in the end.

"If it goes not in his direction, then I think a lot of people will just feel [that] we just can't get justice in this region for black people," he said. He added that regardless of the verdict, he doesn't want "any negative action against police officers.

"I know the chief is committed to changing the dynamic in the community, and we need to give him some room to do that."

A bureau in the balance

Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper has faced the delicate job of appearing simultaneously to back his men and embrace change, knowing that his bureau's reputation hangs in the balance. He hasn't always managed it to everyone's liking.

Last month, for instance, at the rollout of a program designed to help police and young people to understand each other, Chief Harper said the program "will help to prevent incidents such as the Jordan Miles incident." A week later, he emailed his upset force, telling them that the quote "by no means, was intended to be a reflection or casts any disparagement regarding our officers not properly or professionally interacting with the youth" of minority communities.

"Our officers have a great track record when it comes to interfacing with a variety of ethnic groups which make up the diverse population within the city of Pittsburgh," he continued. "However, there are some officers who may need to be exposed to a better way of communicating when interacting and/or understanding the socio-personalities and hyper-masculinity exhibited by today's youth."

Bureau leaders declined to comment for this report.

Police union president Sgt. Mike LaPorte said management's reticence has left the rank-and-file feeling voiceless. "It's unfortunate that our command staff didn't take more of a role in explaining to folks how this went down," he said.

He predicted that when the officers testify, people "will see that this was a non-event. ... [Mr. Miles] engaged them in conversation and then fled. It's clear that he knew who they were. And then he fought them.

"Maybe it's not always the police. Maybe we're looking at this from the wrong angle," he said. "When a police officer tells you to stop, you stop."

Millions at stake

The city paid $75,000 to settle the portion of Mr. Miles' lawsuit that accused it of failing to train and supervise the officers. That left the three officers as defendants, but the city will pay any verdict against them.

If a jury finds that the officers didn't have cause to stop Mr. Miles, didn't identify themselves and used unnecessary force, that verdict could be substantial.

Mr. Miles, his attorneys said last week, went from a B and C student in high school math at age 17 to a 20-year-old with a fifth-grader's arithmetic skills. He tried two universities, but "had been noticing short-term memory loss," said one of those attorneys, J. Kerrington Lewis. "He was just unable to finish out."

Mr. Miles' team hired Pitt economics professor James Kenkel, who calculated his lifetime losses due to the injury at between $1.9 million and $3 million. The defense has challenged that but knows that it's not the limit of any potential verdict, which could include punitive damages.

The initiatives spurred by the incident -- more thorough reporting, better police-community dialogue, enhanced officer training, potentially a county police review board -- could prevent some future, costly incident. Publicity could reduce the chances that a young person approached by the police will dash off and prompt a potentially disastrous pursuit.

The trial will "help us understand more of the dynamics that are at play" when police approach someone on a dark street in a crime-plagued neighborhood, Ms. Pittinger said.

It will almost certainly change the terms of the debate by changing one thing. "Nobody knows what occurred that night, during that encounter, only the people who were there," Ms. Pittinger said. "That's why this trial is so important."


Rich Lord: or 412-263-1542.


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