More brutality in Pittsburgh

From: "Dan Sullivan" 
Date: Wed, 20 Dec 1995 15:11:26 -0500
Subject: A lesson from the police
This was some time ago, like around the early eighties. All of the characters were white. I mention this because race is so often an issue in stories like this that it sometimes needs to be removed to prevent assumptions. (It does turn out to be a side issue.)

I turned off of the Boulevard of the Allies, heading south on Juliet Street, when an woman in her late sixties bolted across the street in front of me, screaming incoherently. The only thing I can remember her saying was "My husband! My husband!" I noticed that there were several people standing about, looking toward the house she had run from, but nobody was moving.

I stopped my van and ran over to the house. In front of the house was a stairway going down to a basement entrance. A young woman was leaning over the railing yelling furiously at someone down on the steps. When I got to the steps, I saw a burly man, probably in his forties, holding a puny old man by the shirt with his left hand and punching him in the face with his right hand.

Every time the young woman yelled at him, he would yell back, "Shut up, nigger lover." and punch the old man again. (I found out later that she was the mother of a racially mixed child.)

I tried to reason with the burly guy, but every time the woman opened her mouth, he went back to punching the old man. I quickly said to her, "Stop. You are only making things worse. Then I said to the guy, "You're going to kill this guy," and then, very slowly, "If you don't stop hitting him, he will die." He stopped. He kept hold of the old guy by his shirt, which is probably just as well, as the old guy would have dropped to the concrete like a rock. The left side of his face was purple and swelled like a grapefruit from the upper jaw to the forehead. I'm sure I wouldn't recognize him if I saw him under normal circumstances.

Another younger woman came over and said to the guy, "Its OK, I called Larry (or somebody, I don't remember the first name anymore). He's coming right over" Then she too began yelling at the woman beside the railing. I was afrand they would set this guy off again.

"Please, not now."

Things calmed down a bit. A crowd had gathered, but they were mostly across the street. Then a police van and a squad car or two got to the scene. One very tall cop, named O'Toole, I believe, addressed the burly guy's woman friend by her first name. Two cops went down and got what was left of the old man. They said a word or two to the burly guy and then PROCEEDED TO ARREST THE OLD MAN!

I yelled, incredulously, "You're arresting the wrong man!"

O'Toole wheeled around and snarled, "Don't tell me who to arrest!"

"Well you can arrest whoever you want, but this guy did all the punching and that guy did all the bleeding."

"How'd you like me to arrest YOU?"

"For what?"

"OBSTRUCTING POLICE BUSINESS! Now, LEAVE THE SCENE BEFORE I ARREST YOU!" This cop seemed to be really stressed out for a situation where nobody was in any danger (except the old man being arrested, who was seriously hurt).

While I was walking away, said loudly to the people across the street. We are all witnesses to this. Suddenly I was pushed forward and downward. O'Toole had one hand on the back of my collar and the other hand on the back of my belt. "Don't turn around, don't try to look at my badge number, and don't say another word." With that he gave me a shove that sent me running to avoid falling down. Finally they drove off with the old guy in the van, and the burly guy went back into the house.

A group of about 15 of us talked about what had happened. The burly guy was an off-duty cop. The woman who had "called Larry" was the cop's girlfriend. The old guy was the woman's landlord, who lived in the same building. He had confronted her about overdue rent, and had apparantly said something she resented. She told her cop boyfriend, who, when I had arrived, was apparantly explaining the special rules of etiquitte that apply to cops' girlfriends.

As we compared notes we became more and more outraged about the police behavior. The old guy's wife was afraid to go back to her own house, so she went to a neighbor's house to call relatives. About a dozen of us, mostly younger adults and one or two teenagers, walked to the Oakland police station to see if we could talk to a superior.

We found a kindly sergeant in charge, and he stood out on the street and listened to what we had to say. O'Toole whas in the background, and came up to listen. At one point he started yelling at me and waving his finger in my face. I turned to the sergeant in charge and said, "Can't I even have a conversation with YOU without being harrassed by this guy?"

He turned to O'Toole and said, "I can handle this." O'Toole backed off and eventually left. The sergeant told us that the old man had been taken to the hospital. He also said that only the injured party could file a complaint, which would be reviewed by the internal affairs department. That's when I learned that a cop beating the crap out of a civilian was an "internal affair."

I gave him my name and telephone number, and I also gave it to the old woman's neighbors so they or she could call me if they needed a witness. I never heard from them again, and I have wondered ever since whether the old couple had filed a complaint or had just learned their lesson and had left the city.

This is not the only example of police brutality I have seen; it is just the worst. The opportunities to see police misconduct in Oakland abound.

I know of two coming conferences on police brutality. One is in Homewood in mid-January, and the other is to be at CMU on February 10. I will post the details soon. I will be at both of them, driven by the memory of that old guy's swollen face.

                       Dan Sullivan