Witnesses to an altercation between rookie Pittsburgh police officer Souroth Chatterji and 19-year-old Ariel Lawther at Delta Foundation's annual Pride festival yesterday offered conflicting accounts of how Lawther wound up being dragged from the crowd by Chatterji by the neck and hair, just before he struck her several times and arrested her.
According to the officer's version of events, spelled out in a criminal complaint supporting charges against Lawther, the girl was in a confrontation with Eric Moure, a 36-year-old protesting Delta Foundation's Pride Festival.
Moure confirms that he had been talking and arguing with Lawther near 6th St. and Penn Ave. for about an hour. "We were talking and she was getting upset by the things we were saying," says Moure, adding he was "preaching the gospel" with three other "Christian brothers" throughout the day.
"She reached across and shoved me and that’s when the officer came in and pulled her away," Moure says. "We know our message won’t be received well by most, [but] I never put my hands on her ever — that’s our rule of thumb."
Moure says the shove is what prompted Chatterji to intervene. "When [Chatterji] grabbed her, it enraged her even further and she began resisting — swinging her fist, hitting him."
That version of events largely corresponds to the account in Chatterji's criminal complaint. As Chatterji tried to break up Lawther and Moure, the officer wrote in the complaint, Lawther "began to push and strike me in the chest with her hands and groin area with her legs."
"In a rapidly evolving and tenuous situation I grabbed Lawther by the head and swung her out of the crowd," Chatterji wrote, adding that Lawther continued to strike him — and that he was hit by others in the crowd.
"To defuse the situation quickly before I was attacked by the crowd once more," Chatterji wrote, "I punched Lawther in the left abdomen several times to distract her enough so I could handcuff her."
Two other witnesses — Autumn Huntera and Sierra Kyle — dispute that version of events, though they agree that things got heated between Lawther and Moure. Kyle and Huntera helped spread their friend's video of the incident on social media, though they say they did not know Lawther beforehand.
"The protesters were saying she was going to Hell because she’s a lesbian," Huntera says. While a small group of Pride participants were arguing with Moure's band, she says, "[Lawther] was more into the argument than most people were."
Huntera says Lawther didn't shove Moure: Instead, she "stepped closer because they were both screaming at each other."
That step seemed to prompt Chatterji to intervene, Huntera says. "He grabs her by the back of her neck [...] And then he pulled her backwards off the sidewalk and she fell down because of it. And he picked her up by her hair and then he said to her, 'Do you want me to hit you?' And when she didn’t respond, he started punching her in the stomach [...] she didn’t resist arrest at all."
At some point, Huntera says, someone threw a water bottle at Chatterji, which hit him in the head.
"She wasn’t being violent, she never resisted arrest, she did nothing illegal," says 18-year-old Sierra Kyle, a friend of Huntera's who watched the events unfold. "He could have just calmly grabbed her arms — he didn’t have to beat her."
Public safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler said she could not comment on the differing versions of events, citing an ongoing investigation. Toler added that investigators are looking for more video evidence, and encouraged anyone who was there or who may have more information to contact the Office of Municipal Investigations. Officers do not wear audio or video recording equipment, Toler says.
Police union representatives didn't return calls seeking comment.
Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, questioned the officer's use of force — based on the video clip that circulated on social media.
"I don’t quite understand why those body blows had to be employed," Pittinger says, noting that while the video is incomplete, there did not appear to be evidence that Lawther was resisting arrest while Chatterji continued to hit her.
"There has to be an active effort to resist — and I don’t know the video shows that," Pittinger says. "She had very little control over her movement at that point."
Pittinger says the CPRB has launched its own investigation independent of OMI, though she says she expects the two agencies to cooperate.
For his part, Moure — the anti-gay protester — says the video gives a misleading picture of what happened.
"If I only saw the end, I would have been shocked and I would have wanted to hold [Chatterji] accountable," Moure says."But he was assaulted first and there was a reason he wanted to remove her. He didn’t just grab her for no reason whatsoever."