In Pittsburgh, two controversial cases reveal divide between the black community and the police
November 1996: Brentwood police Officer John Vojtas looks away from protesters in front of the Allegheny County Courthouse, as he and his legal team cross Grant Street during a recess in now-Sgt. Vojtas' trial.
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One was a young businessman, the other an honors high school student. Their paths never crossed, but Jonny Gammage and Jordan Miles are inextricably linked as black men who were injured, one fatally, while being subdued by white police officers.
Their violent encounters -- Mr. Miles' fight with three plainclothes Pittsburgh police officers in 2010 and Mr. Gammage's fatal clash with five suburban police officers in 1995 -- elicited charges in some quarters that blacks received unfair treatment at the hands of white police officers. Police vehemently denied the allegations.
Both cases provoked outrage and protests and revealed a raw cultural divide between the black community and police.
Parallels between the cases have spurred the production of "The Gammage Project," a docudrama that begins this week at the University of Pittsburgh. The hope of supporters of the project -- produced jointly by Pitt's repertory company and Pittsburgh Playwrights -- is that revisiting a tragedy 16 years in the past will help prevent one in the future.
Some observers note that Mr. Gammage's death sparked needed reforms, such as improved police training, procedures and oversight.
Still, they say, there remains much to glean from what happened during what should have been a routine traffic stop.
Syracuse, N.Y., native Jonny Gammage, 31, was driving north on Route 51 in Brentwood shortly after midnight in a dark blue 1988 Jaguar XJ6 owned by his cousin, then-Steelers defensive lineman Ray Seals, for whom he worked.
Brentwood police Lt. Milton E. Mulholland would later testify he spotted the vehicle driving erratically. He said he activated his lights and siren but Mr. Gammage refused to pull over, weaving from lane to lane and driving through three red lights.
Eventually, Mr. Gammage stopped just inside the Pittsburgh city limits in Overbrook. Brentwood police Officer John Vojtas and Whitehall Sgt. Keith Henderson arrived as backup.
It was 1:47 a.m.
Officers, the only witnesses to what happened during the next few minutes, testified the following occurred:
Mr. Gammage acted suspiciously and disobeyed commands to keep his hands visible to them. A small amount of marijuana was found in the car, but toxicology tests later showed he had taken no drugs and was not legally intoxicated.
When Officer Vojtas ordered Mr. Gammage out of the car, Mr. Gammage was holding a cell phone in one hand and a datebook in the other. Thinking the phone was a handgun, Sgt. Henderson trained his weapon on Mr. Gammage and would have shot but Officer Vojtas was in the line of fire.
Using his flashlight, Officer Vojtas knocked the object out of Mr. Gammage's hand. Mr. Gammage lunged at Officer Vojtas. The other officers rushed to help. Mr. Gammage and the officers traded numerous blows, and Mr. Gammage bit Officer Vojtas' right thumb.
Whitehall Officer Shawn Patterson and Baldwin Borough Patrolman Michael G. Albert arrived and joined the fray, with Officer Albert wielding a baton. It took several minutes for the five officers to subdue and handcuff Mr. Gammage facedown on the pavement.
Officer Vojtas summoned paramedics, who treated him for the bite wound. Police and paramedics wrapped a restraining belt around Mr. Gammage's legs as the businessman continued to kick and struggle while Officer Patterson, Lt. Mulholland and Sgt. Henderson held him facedown.
"Keith, I'm 31," Mr. Gammage said to Sgt. Henderson. He went calm and closed his eyes. A paramedic tried to take his pulse. Mr. Gammage was in cardiac arrest.
The Allegheny County coroner ruled he died from positional asphyxia, meaning his face-down position combined with pressure on his back and neck from officers left him unable to breathe. Forensic pathologists testified that such oxygen deprivation would make a person respond violently because of the reflexive human survival mechanism.
Literally, Mr. Gammage had fought for his life and lost.
Positional asphyxia was well known for years in the medical community, but it was rare during arrests and wasn't on the radar of most of the nation's police agencies.
In fact, at the time of Mr. Gammage's death, a videotape about positional asphyxia produced by the New York City Police Department had been on a shelf at the Allegheny County Police Training Academy for about five months. It had never been shown to local police agencies because it was not believed to be relevant.
Today, because of the Gammage case and others, police nationally are trained in techniques to prevent causing positional asphyxia.
Additionally, police departments everywhere now use many techniques to avoid physical confrontations. They include "verbal judo," using words to de-escalate a potentially volatile situation, and, higher on the continuum of force, pepper spray or Tasers to subdue a noncompliant suspect.
Allegheny County Sheriff William P. Mullen, who in 1995 was Pittsburgh police commander of Zone 3, said officer training has greatly improved since Mr. Gammage died.
"We try to be proactive in training techniques to prevent injuries, but unfortunately sometimes a tragedy like this occurs. If that happens, we improve our training to try to prevent it from happening again," he said.
"Who knows what would have happened had the proper techniques been taught then."
David A. Harris, a Pitt law professor who has studied best practices for police agencies, agreed that effective and proper use of force is better understood and used nationally since the day Mr. Gammage died.
"There is a process of continuous improvement, which is what we hope for," Mr. Harris said. "There is a willingness to try lesser amounts of force to accomplish what needs to be done."
Lt. Mulholland and Officers Albert and Vojtas were criminally charged in Mr. Gammage's death. Officer Vojtas was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter in 1996 by an all-white jury from Lackawanna County and a year later was promoted to sergeant. Lt. Mulholland, who retired, and Patrolman Albert had two mistrials. A judge ruled they could not be tried a third time.
Mr. Gammage's death involved suburban police, but the subsequent intense publicity and scrutiny triggered enormous rage toward police throughout the region. Coming in the wake of the O.J. Simpson trial, with charges that Los Angeles police were racist in their actions, the Gammage case pushed the black community's lurking distrust of white police officers into the open. Protesters' chants of "No Justice, No Peace!" echoed again and again Downtown.
One of the protest leaders was Tim Stevens, then president of the Pittsburgh branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Mr. Stevens, now chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project, recalled that during one of several trips to Washington, D.C., to urge the U.S. Justice Department to file charges in the Gammage case, he told Mr. Gammage's parents to "never feel your son's death was in vain. Certain things have begun to change." And they did.
The Justice Department launched a 10-month investigation after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a landmark federal lawsuit charging Pittsburgh officials with looking the other way while some police officers abused and beat people and made unlawful arrests and searches. It concluded the city had tolerated a pattern of police brutality since the mid-1980s.
City officials disagreed, but to avoid a costly court fight they entered into an unprecedented five-year consent decree in April 1997, which mandated federal oversight and extensive changes in the way police were trained, supervised, monitored and disciplined.
And later that year, Pittsburgh voters approved a referendum calling for the creation of a Citizen Police Review Board.
Mr. Stevens credited the "energy" surrounding the Gammage case for the city reforms, which he said were needed and positive. His view was shared by Mr. Harris. In his 2005 book, "Good Cops: The Case for Preventive Policing," he highlighted as "cutting edge" the computerized personnel assessment system the Pittsburgh police bureau developed under the consent decree.
Mr. Stevens said he couldn't help but think of Mr. Gammage when he saw a picture of Mr. Miles' face, swollen nearly beyond recognition by the beating he suffered Jan. 12, 2010, after three plainclothes police officers stopped him on Tioga Street in Homewood.
But whatever similarities there may be between the cases, there was one major difference, Mr. Stevens noted: "The good news is, he's still standing."
Mr. Miles, who later said the officers did not identify themselves, said he thought he was being robbed and tried to fight them off. The officers, who have said they were wearing badges and repeatedly identified themselves, used a Taser to try to subdue him, then punched him and kneed him in the head when the Taser had no effect, they said.
Charges against Mr. Miles stemming from the incident were dismissed. The city reinstated all three officers. Mr. Miles filed a federal civil suit against the officers and the city, a portion of which Pittsburgh City Council may settle this week.
But just as in the Gammage case, the Miles case has produced change. City Council unanimously approved a bill requiring the police department to share more information about stop-and-frisk encounters and other potentially hot-button actions.
Perhaps most significantly, the final version of the bill included input and compromises by Councilman Ricky Burgess, who introduced it, as well as other council members and police bureau, police union and civil-rights groups. At the time, Mr. Stevens called the compromise legislation a "near miracle."
After it was announced that -- as in the Gammage case -- the federal government would not file charges in the Miles case, U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton convened an ongoing roundtable of the region's civil rights leaders, top law enforcement officials and the city police union in hopes of fostering mutual trust through frank dialogue. Among the participants are Sheriff Mullen, Mr. Harris and Mr. Stevens, all of whom say such interaction is the start of something beneficial for all.
"I think some positive results will come out of it," Mr. Stevens said. "There needs to be a foundation of mutual respect. The police have to be respected by the community, but the community also needs to be respected by the police."
Sheriff Mullen said the hope is "to remove the obstructions from attaining the goal of complete trust between the community and police."
And Mr. Harris offered, "All of this represents positive progress. We need to learn from our mistakes."
First Published February 5, 2012 12:00 am