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Heyl: Going to video fails to clarify Pittsburgh PrideFest scuffle

| Tuesday, June 17, 2014, 10:51 p.m.

Welcome to Assault Analysis 101, class.

Your assignment today is daunting.

You will review a 16-second video clip that shows Pittsburgh Police Officer Souroth Chatterji pushing and punching Ariel Lawther, 19, of Harmony. The altercation occurred Downtown on Sunday during PrideFest.

You then will analyze other aspects of the incident and attempt to determine whether Chatterji used excessive force to subdue Lawther. Lawther is charged with aggravated assault, resisting arrest and other offenses for allegedly punching and kicking the officer.

The Office of Municipal Investigations and the Citizen Police Review Board have the same difficult task of trying to ascertain whether Chatterji's actions were justified.

Thanks to Jenna Henry, 16, of Castle Shannon, this exercise's only uncomplicated aspect is establishing that a violent act occurred. She posted a video she recorded of the confrontation's conclusion on Facebook, where it had been shared more than 40,000 times as of Tuesday.

As part of your impartial analysis, pay no heed to knee-jerk reactions from Chatterji detractors and supporters alike.

Discard comments from Facebook posters such as an indignant fellow who wrote: “Someone should get a rope and hang that (expletive). Cops have (no) right hitting people just because they have a badge on their shirt ... ignorant son of a (expletive).”

Also ignore Howard McQuillan, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge 1, who said it appears Chatterji was assaulted. It's difficult to draw that conclusion from the video, unless McQuillan meant that Lawther's stomach assaulted Chatterji's fist by failing to avoid it.

What should not be avoided in any impartial analysis is looking beyond the video that appears plenty incriminating. To perform this assignment properly, it's necessary to go deeper than the shallow waters occupied by people such as the Facebook commenter and McQuillan.

Consider the words of PrideFest protester Eric Moure, with whom Lawther had argued immediately before the confrontation with Chatterji. Moure contended that Lawther shoved him, then began swinging at Chatterji when he attempted to intervene.

No one appears to have captured that portion of the incident on video. Moure and Lawther exchanged what charitably could be called philosophical differences.

Should much importance be placed on his version of events?

Perhaps.

Lawther appears to be a person capable of losing her temper. She is awaiting a preliminary hearing on simple assault and disorderly conduct charges stemming from an incident in November in Lancaster, Butler County.

Lawther's alleged assault victim, her mother, reportedly suffered a black eye.

Was Sunday's incident one in which a police officer grossly abused his authority? Or was it one in which necessary force was used to subdue someone who had provoked a physical confrontation?

It's difficult to tell from just the tail end of a shakily shot video.

Could be a while before the Assault Analysis class is dismissed.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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