3 sue Pittsburgh police over phone-recorded confrontation

Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — The American Civil Liberties Union sued Pittsburgh police and a white officer on Tuesday for allegedly retaliating against three black residents, one of whom attempted to record an encounter with the officer on her cellphone, by citing them for disorderly conduct.

The lead plaintiff, Teresa Brown, is an elected constable who also works for the city's water and sewer authority. Constables serve civil papers, transport prisoners and do other work for local courts.

"I've never felt so humiliated and disrespected in my life," Brown said in a statement released by the ACLU, which filed the federal civil rights lawsuit. "I don't expect to be treated this way from someone who is supposed to protect me."

The lawsuit says Officer Elizabeth Vitalbo questioned Brown, her two daughters and a friend after a fight broke out across from their home on Sept. 28, 2013, and Brown went to break it up.

One of Brown's daughters, Monica Jackson, attempted to record the confrontation after the officer disbelieved Brown's version of events, the lawsuit said. The plaintiffs claim they were wrongly cited for disorderly conduct after the fact for filing complaints about the officer.

Attorney Bryan Campbell of the Fraternal Order of Police denied that anyone's rights were violated. He said officers were trying to restore order after a brawl in the street, and some people "wouldn't get out of the street and be quiet."

"It's another case of police officers trying to do their duty and people not liking it," he said.

A city police spokeswoman referred questions to the city law department, which didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The officer threatened to arrest Jackson when she tried to record the encounter, and she refused to give her name and badge number, telling Jackson at one point that her name was "Ms. Smith," the lawsuit said.

Brown, Jackson and the friend, Anthony Grace, were eventually cited for disorderly conduct, and all were found not guilty when they challenged the citations at trial.

Online court records show the citations were filed a week after the encounter but were not served on the plaintiffs until March 2014.

The plaintiffs say police pursued the citations only after they complained to the city's Office of Municipal Investigations, which reviews citizen complaints of police misconduct.

According to the lawsuit, OMI's investigation determined that Jackson's claim of harassment by the officer was "unfounded." OMI ruled similarly on complaints that Vitalbo falsely identified herself and engaged in verbal misconduct for allegedly cursing at Brown.

The allegation that Jackson was wrongly prevented from recording the incident was closed by OMI as "not resolved" because of the conflicting accounts.

"This office doesn't take one person's word over that of another," OMI said in a letter explaining that decision, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs seek unspecified damages.