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Protesters who say they were injured during 2020 protests sue Pittsburgh police

A demonstration from Mt. Washington to Downtown Pittsburgh in the summer of 2020.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A demonstration from Mt. Washington to Downtown Pittsburgh in the summer of 2020.

Three protesters who were injured during Pittsburgh protests against police brutality and the death of George Floyd have filed a federal lawsuit against the city’s Bureau of Police.

Alex Horell, Gordon Brown and Hatem Hassan filed the suit in federal court last week. They allege that during a protest Downtown on May 30, 2020, police violated their civil rights, and that they used excessive force and retaliatory prosecution.

According to the filing, police did not distinguish between peaceful protesters and people who “were not participating in the protests” but “created chaos” by burning police cars and vandalizing buildings.

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“Members of the [police Special Response Team] indiscriminately used chemical gas, rubber bullets, other projectiles, pepper spray, flashbang grenades, as well as other riot control devices against all individuals they encountered — whether they were peacefully congregating or not,” the complaint contends.

The suit also says police “failed to provide medical attention to the many who were injured by their ‘crowd control’ tactics.”

Many of the allegations are similar to those made in lawsuit filed over how police handled a protest that took place in East Liberty. That case is still pending.

Horell said he lost his right eye after he was hit by a projectile. Brown said he was also shot in the face with a projectile, which split his upper lip in half and knocked out two of his teeth. Hassan said he received a “displaced fracture to his hand” after he was cornered in an alley by police who then “fired rubber bullets, chemical gas, and other propulsions.”

“All of those acts were unreasonable because they weren’t warranted based on the behaviors of those individuals,” said Fred G. Rabner, one of the attorneys who is representing the three plaintiffs. “The acting officer [took] matters into their own hands in using deadly force in situations that did not warrant such force.”

The city has said it does not use rubber bullets per se. But tear gas, sponge rounds and smoke grenades are classed as “less lethal” weapons, which Pittsburgh police policy allows officers to use “to perform their duties in a more efficient and humane manner when dealing with physical resistance or the threat of physical resistance.”

Proponents of “less lethal” weapons say they minimize the potential for death or injury, but some have disputed that claim.

Horell and Brown were served with criminal charges after the protests, but the lawsuit alleges that these were in retaliation.

The suit also says the officers on the scene that day were not properly educated, trained, or supervised.

“If you hear how they were exercising their power and see how they were exercising their power, it was not in conformity with any of the regular standards of law and even their own general orders,” said Rabner. “They hadn’t been trained, they hadn’t been supervised properly, and they weren’t being supervised in the field properly, and the actions they took were grotesquely out of bounds.”

A spokesperson for the city said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at