In a case that has led to demands for greater oversight of city police, a Hill District woman maintained at her Nov. 30 preliminary hearing that Pittsburgh Police pointed guns at her and her children during a traffic stop.
But while Pamela Lawton was unarmed during the Aug. 26 incident, police said they drew their guns in response to her "belligerent" response when officer Eric Tatusko pulled her over in Shadyside for driving with expired inspection stickers.
Lawton claimed her loud and impassioned reaction to Tatusko was only natural for a mother who believed her children were threatened.
"I cut my car off and sat there and waited four to seven minutes," she told Municipal Court Magistrate Charles McLaughlin Jr. "[Tatusko] came out of his vehicle with his hands on his gun. He was like, 'Get your hands up and shut up.'" Then, she said, her four children started screaming and crying with fear. "If you would come to my side and work with me, I can get the children under control," she said she told him.
Backup officers arrived soon after, Lawton said, and more officers drew more guns. "I'm caught in the middle of protecting my kids and obeying the officer," testified Lawton.
Tatusko, on the other hand, said he felt threatened by Lawton. He testified that although he approached the passenger side of the van, where Lawton's 7-year-old daughter Joshalyn sat, with his hand on his gun, the weapon was snapped into the holster. But before he even approached the minivan, he added, Lawton became belligerent, snarling "Well? Get up here," and pounding on her steering wheel.
"The tone of her voice and the way she was phrasing it was a demand," he said.
He also said Lawton insisted he was pulling her over because she was black.
Tatusko testified that because Lawton, an employee of Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, called herself an "officer" -- something Lawton denied saying -- he also believed she might have a gun in her purse. "We are allowed to draw our weapons if we believe there's a threat to our lives," Tatusko said.
When she began to reach for her purse, he drew his gun and pointed it at the ground, he explained. Then, Lawton became "hysterical" and started screaming for help.
One of the officers responding to the call for backup was Lt. Cindy Windsor, who said she tried to de-escalate the situation. When she heard Lawton yelling that "he tried to kill her baby," she testified, she thought perhaps Tatusko had apprehended someone who'd threatened Lawton.
"I said, 'There's a lot of other officers here, you're safe, relax,'" Windsor recounted. She tried sitting Lawton down on the bumper of a police wagon that had arrived, but Lawton refused. "She was throwing her body around. I grabbed her wrist."
Lawton said Windsor manhandled her and told her if she didn't shut up, her kids would be taken away by the county. Windsor admits to making that threat, much later in the interaction.
Lawton's trial for disorderly conduct is set for Feb. 22.
Joseph K. Williams, Lawton's attorney, maintained that her reaction didn't meet any standards for this charge -- it wasn't a pointless ruckus meant only to disturb and annoy, as the offense requires. "My client's response was one of the most primal human reactions, that of a mother protecting her children," Williams said. "I hope this is a search for truth."