When Pittsburgh police officer Souroth Chatterji arrested 19-year-old Ariel Lawther at the city's annual LGBT Pride festival June 15, he pulled her by the neck and hair out of a crowd and punched her several times before detaining her.
Video that surfaced of the incident quickly made it the first high-profile case of potential police misconduct under Mayor Bill Peduto's watch — and within 24 hours Peduto had promised, "We will work diligently to make sure that justice is not delayed and that we will be able to proceed over the next month to find out exactly what happened, and to take the proper action."
Eighty-one days after the incident, Peduto released a statement from the city's top lawyer exonerating Chatterji, while offering few details about the basis for the decision.
"Objective reviews of the entirety of the evidence may not always reveal what one video, one photograph, or one statement might reveal alone," solicitor Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge wrote in a statement released late in the day on Fri., Sept. 5. "A final report by the Office of Municipal Investigations, including an analysis completed by an independent consultant, has determined that the officer involved did not use excessive force."
Police-accountability experts say the city might be making the right call by exonerating Chatterji, since use-of-force cases are extremely fact-specific. But some are wondering why the city has refused to disclose even basic information about why it exonerated Chatterji, who declined to comment for this story.
"People have too much experience with the city than to trust leaders when they say, ‘Trust us,'" says Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union. "This is when you need transparency — not on the daily calendar," referring to the daily schedule Peduto publishes.
One way the city could be more transparent, Walczak says, is to produce additional video footage that police-union attorney Bryan Campbell says helped exonerate Chatterji.
According to Campbell, the video — shot from a nearby PNC Bank branch — resolved conflicting witness accounts about whether Lawther physically assaulted an anti-gay protester before Chatterji arrested her. "It was pretty clear from the film, at least, that the young lady assaulted one of these preachers and the officers tried to take her into custody for that," Campbell says.
But so far, the city is not making that video available to the public.
Mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty said that OMI, the city's internal review mechanism, does not release details of internal investigations, even after they are completed. He would not say whether the policy was based on any law or provision of the city's contract with the Fraternal Order of Police.
The Peduto administration has also refused to say why it decided to use an unnamed "independent agency" to review the incident, or why it plans to require "third-party analysis in all excessive force investigations," instead of relying solely on OMI.