Miles incident 'has touched a big nerve' in Pittsburgh
The case of a black teenager whose federal civil rights trial against three white Pittsburgh police officers begins on Monday has polarized the city like no other incident since a black motorist died in an altercation with white officers in 1995, lawyers and activists say.
“I've never had more white people discuss a case since the Jonny Gammage case,” said Tim Stevens, chairman and CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project. “It has touched a big nerve.”
Jordan Miles, now 20, claims Officers Richard Ewing, Michael Saldutte and David Sisak used excessive force when they arrested him Jan. 12, 2010, on a Homewood street near his home and then filed false charges against him to justify their actions.
The officers contend they had probable cause to chase a fleeing Miles — who they thought was armed — and used the appropriate amount of force to subdue him.
“It's no longer possible to think about police-community relations without thinking about the Jordan Miles case,” said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris. “This trial is going to mean a lot to our community, no matter how it turns out.”
Pittsburgh paid $75,000 to settle Miles' claims against the city, but taxpayers could still pay any damages a jury levies against the officers.
Federal and state prosecutors declined to pursue criminal charges against the officers.
J. Kerrington Lewis, one of Miles' attorneys, said the strongest support for his client's claims is the officers' version of what happened.
“Their story doesn't make sense in any shape or form,” he said. “We're going to show it's a fairy tale they created to avoid responsibility for their conduct.”
Bryan Campbell, one of the attorneys for the three officers, said several parts of Miles' story don't add up, starting with his claim they didn't identify themselves as police. The officers were in an unmarked car but wearing badges around their necks, and the two who exited the car identified themselves as police, he said.
According to Miles, he was walking along Tioga Street to his grandmother's house, talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone, when a car swerved to a stop in front of him and three men in dark clothes jumped out.
The men asked him where his money, drugs and gun were. Thinking he was about to be robbed, he ran a short distance before slipping and falling in the snow.
The men choked, punched and kneed him, put him in handcuffs, and repeatedly shoved his face into the snow, causing a piece of wood to impale his gums, Miles has said.
The officers claim Miles incurred most of his injuries, including the punctured gum, when one of the officers tackled him, sending him through a hedge.
The officers say one of them saw a bulge in Miles' coat pocket that could have been a weapon. They contend they subsequently discovered the bulge was a Mountain Dew bottle, but Miles denies he was carrying a bottle or had a bulge in his pocket. The officers say they tossed the bottle away. It was never recovered.
“He's saying he never knew they were police officers until the police van arrives,” Campbell said. “If you are sitting there in handcuffs and they're waiting for a van, would someone think they were being robbed?”
Stevens says the Miles case resonates so strongly with people he's talked with partly because of the situation: a slight, viola-playing, black honors student vs. three larger white police officers with martial arts training, handcuffs, Mace and guns.
A community activist for more than 40 years, Stevens said he respects the difficult job that police do but can't understand how the three officers couldn't subdue Miles without sending him to the hospital.
The pictures of Miles' swollen face after his arrest added to emotions.
“I'm still startled by the intensity of those pictures, by the graphic nature of those pictures,” Stevens said.
Harris, whose son is friends with Miles, said he rarely encounters anyone who hasn't decided what happened already.
“There are lots of people walking around who feel this is just another example of abuse with no justice,” he said.
The law enforcement community have equally strong feelings, too.
“They don't feel like (the officers) have been given a fair shake or a fair hearing,” Harris said.
Allegheny County prosecuted three of the five suburban officers implicated in Gammage's 1995 death during a traffic stop on Route 51 in Carrick. An all-white jury acquitted one of the officers; a judge dismissed the prosecution of the other two officers after their first and second trials ended in mistrials.
The Justice Department ultimately decided not to pursue civil rights charges against the officers. Gammage's parents settled their civil lawsuit against the officers for $1.5 million.
In the Miles case, U.S. Attorney David Hickton and Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. decided not to charge the three officers. Hickton and Zappala declined to comment for this story.
Those decisions aggravated a lingering frustration in the black community over the way the Gammage case ended, activists say.
Brandi Fisher, chairwoman of the Alliance for Police Accountability, said the lack of charges shows that criminal prosecutions of police officers are held to a different standard than prosecutions of other people.
“We all can clearly see the facts of the case,” she said. “Normally you charge someone and 12 people decide.”
T. Rashad Byrdsong, president and CEO of the Community Empowerment Association Inc. in Homewood, said Zappala's decision damaged police-community relations.
“In this case it was real clear to all of us here in the city that the police officers committed a grave offense against him,” he said.
Although a verdict will serve as an official resolution of what happened on that winter night in Homewood, it's not likely to change many minds, Harris said.
“To look for something like closure or satisfaction in the legal system, I'd have to say you‘d be better off seeking therapy,” the law professor said. “It's not what the system is for.”
The civil lawsuit is all the community has left in terms of justice, Byrdsong said.
A verdict for Miles “is the only relief we have other than insurrection, and none of us want that,” he said. A verdict for the officers wouldn't necessarily cause insurrection, but it could push the black community in that direction, he said.
Without elaborating, police spokeswoman Diane Richard said the department will be ready for any trouble.
Stevens said a verdict either way won't change efforts on both sides to improve police-community relations, but a verdict for the officers would reinforce “the perception that is becoming more and more a reality that it is difficult, nearly impossible, to prosecute police officers.”
Pittsburgh police Sgt. Michael LaPorte, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, said a decision in Miles' favor would hamper the city's efforts to hire more officers.
“Police officers would continue to be the professionals they are, but you're going to discourage more people from joining the department.”
Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.