Police officer: Trouble during Pride weekend began when woman hit him

Bob Bauder
| Monday, June 16, 2014, 10:03 a.m.

A Butler County woman at the center of a video showing her scuffling with a Pittsburgh police officer on Sunday during Pride events Downtown is awaiting a hearing on charges that she assaulted her mother, who wound up with a black eye.

Ariel Lawther, 19, of Harmony is ordered to appear next month to answer criminal charges that she punched her mother, Carrie Pittman, 35, of Lancaster, in November. Lawther is charged with simple assault and disorderly conduct, said Lancaster police Officer David Sitler. Her mother also was charged.

Lawther's weekend confrontation with Pittsburgh police went viral when a bystander captured a portion with video and provided it to social media.

Police charged Lawther with aggravated assault, resisting arrest and related crimes for allegedly punching and kicking Officer Souroth Chatterji in the groin. The video shows Chatterji subduing Lawther with a punch. Neither Chatterji nor Lawther could be reached for comment.

Chatterji was assigned to desk duty after the incident, which occurred on the same day Mayor Bill Peduto officiated at a wedding for 20 same-sex couples.

Lawther is free on $5,000 bond.

The Delta Foundation, which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, is asking U.S. Attorney David Hickton's office for a “potential hate crime investigation.”

At a news conference, Peduto promised a thorough and fair investigation. He was joined by new Public Safety Director Stephen Bucar and other city officials.

“There are professional standards on the escalation of force, and we want to make sure what happened falls within the standards, and not rush to judgment until such time that we can see exactly what happened,” Peduto said.

The mayor said officials are seeking additional video from nearby cameras that would show the confrontation from start to end.

Jenna Kenny, 16, of Castle Shannon captured the incident on her iPhone. Her four-minute video shows an angry crowd yelling at anti-gay activists, the officer pushing Lawther away and the altercation between them. She posted it on her personal Facebook account and asked friends to share it. She called the officer's actions “over the line.”

Chatterji reported in the complaint that he was stationed at Sixth Street and Liberty Avenue about 4 p.m. when he saw a fight between Lawther and a man identified as Eric Moure, 36, of White Oak as about 50 people watched.

Moure, a self-described street preacher who was protesting the event, said Lawther shoved him. That's when Chatterji intervened, he said.

“She went berserk,” Moure said. “He was trying to place her under arrest, and she was fighting him back. She started swinging her fists. She just kept on, so he did what he had to do.”

Chatterji reported that he warned Lawther 30 minutes earlier about her behavior toward protesters after she threatened to kill them.

He wrote that Lawther and onlookers struck and kicked him numerous times as he broke up the fight.

The video shows the officer grabbing Lawther by the hair and punching her several times in the stomach. Chatterji wrote that he was forced to do so because he was being struck by onlookers and she kept fighting. He wrote that he feared for his safety.

Lawther apologized to Chatterji afterward and told him that she did not realize he was an officer, the complaint said.

“If she's punching and kicking him, he's allowed to use however much force is necessary to overcome that and make an arrest if there is a legitimate cause for it,” said David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and police expert. “The question will be whether punching the woman once she's out of the crowd was necessary to meet a threat of force he was facing then. Not a minute before then, but then.”

Chatterji joined the police force on Aug. 20, 2012, and works the night shift from the Zone 4 station in Squirrel Hill. He is a military veteran, Public Safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler said.

“It appears that he was assaulted and he effected an arrest with the force that it took to make the arrest,” said Howard McQuillan, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge 1. “It's just a shame that his actions are being second-guessed by people who weren't in his situation.”

The Office of Municipal Investigations is handling the inquiry, Peduto said.

The Citizen's Police Review Board is investigating, Executive Director Beth Pittinger said.

“We want to assure everybody, both the public and the police, that we want fairness and we will work diligently to make sure that justice is not delayed,” Peduto said. “We will be able to proceed over the next month to find out exactly what happened and to take the proper action.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com. Staff writer Melissa Daniels contributed to this report.

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