The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Pittsburgh and an officer with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police alleging intimidation and harassment of three black residents in September 2013.
According to the suit, Officer Elizabeth Vitalbo, who is white, was dispatched to Ward Street in Oakland after reports of a physical altercation between several young men. By the time Vitalbo arrived, the confrontation had allegedly been diffused by Teresa Brown, an elected constable who lived across the street. Brown indicated the direction in which the young men had walked afterwards, and Vitalbo took off in that direction, according to court documents.
The suit alleges that Vitalbo returned a few minutes later and stated that she could hear Brown, her daughter Monica Jackson and neighbor Anthony Grace talking from an adjacent street, “and instructed them to ‘shut up.’” The suit further alleges that Officer Vitalbo accused Brown of lying about where the fight took place and threatened to arrest her and label Brown’s house as a nuisance property.
Brown stated for the lawsuit that when she told Vitalbo she was a constable and on the “same side” as the police, Vitalbo responded, “I don’t give a (expletive) who you are.” Jackson then reportedly picked up her cell phone and told Vitalbo she intended to record her. The suit alleges that Vitalbo told Jackson to put the phone down or she would be arrested.
Officer Vitalbo allegedly called for police backup and 15-20 additional police officers arrived, one of whom reportedly slammed Grace against Brown’s porch railing and “vigorously frisked him.”
The suit alleges that Vitalbo refused to identify herself when asked for her name and badge number and referred to herself as “Officer Smith.” After about an hour, police left and no citations were issued, documents say.
Two days later, Brown, Jackson and Grace filed complaints with the Pittsburgh Office of Municipal Investigations and the Pittsburgh Citizens Police Review Board alleging that Vitalbo was rude and unprofessional, falsely identified herself and did not allow Jackson to record the interaction with her cell phone.
In March 2014, Brown, Jackson and Grace were cited with disorderly conduct in connection with the September incident, for which they were tried and found not guilty.
Shortly after, the OMI closed the investigation, finding that the allegations against Vitalbo, including harassment and verbal misconduct, were unfounded.
But Vic Walczak, legal director for the ACLU PA, said the officer’s actions violated the plaintiffs’ first and fourth amendment rights. He added that this was not an isolated incident, but rather a common occurrence.
“The police act unprofessionally and when the civilian pulls out a recording device to say I need to capture this on video, the police act aggressively (and) threaten them with arrest if they continue to record,” he said.
The suit is directed not only at Vitalbo but also at the city of Pittsburgh. Walczak said the city does not have a policy regarding citizens’ rights to record interactions with police officers, and that rank-and-file officers are not properly trained in this manner.
“It’s very clear that people have a constitutional right to use their cell phones to record what police are doing, especially in a public area, so long as they don’t physically interfere,” he said. “If the police think they’re too close, the response is not to tell them not to record, but to say ‘Why don’t you step back 10 feet for your own safety?’”
Executive director Beth Pittinger of the citizens review board said the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police had been informed that citizens have a right to safely record interactions with police when the board held a hearing on the matter in December 2014. After the hearing, the board ruled that Vitalbo acted inappropriately and untruthfully.
In a letter to the board dated Sept. 8, 2015, Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Chief Cameron McLay said he agreed that Vitalbo exhibited “conduct unbecoming a member or employee” of the police bureau, but disagreed with the board’s findings that she acted untruthfully. McLay concluded that the “shortcomings in PO Vitalbo’s conduct in this case were likely driven by performance capacity issues to be addressed through training, rather than as purposeful misconduct calling for punitive discipline.”
The U.S. Department of Justice in 2012 stated that citizens’ right to record police officers is derived from the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The statement was made in connection to a federal lawsuit filed against the Baltimore Police Department, and noted that such rights “are consistent with our fundamental notions of liberty, promote the accountability of our governmental officers, and instill public confidence in the police officers who serve us daily.”
“These kind(s) of videos are essential to getting justice and ultimately, I think, to promoting harmonious police-community relations,” Walczak said.
This isn’t the first time the City of Pittsburgh has been sued by a black resident over police conduct and the right to record.
Dennis Henderson, a teacher at Manchester Academy Charter School, settled a similar lawsuit with the city in December 2014 for $52,500.
At that time, ACLU PA attorneys stated that “the city will adopt a policy about that and do some training with officers to make sure officers respect the public’s right to record them.”
Spokespeople from Mayor Bill Peduto’s Office and the Department of Public Safety could neither confirm whether the bureau has a policy in place regarding citizens’ right to record interactions with the police, nor state whether police are trained with respect to citizens’ right to record. They also declined to comment on ongoing litigation and allegations against Officer Vitalbo.