Atty: Pa. beating case no race-bias bellwether

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Associated Press

Posted on July 14, 2012 at 2:05 PM

Updated Saturday, Jul 14 at 5:33 PM

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh police are no strangers to civil rights controversies.

The city was forced to hire more women and minority officers after a 1970s lawsuit. And in 1997, it became the first U.S. city to agree to Justice Department-enforced reforms to curb a "pattern and practice" of civil rights abuses, including improper arrests, brutality and a backlog of hundreds of cases before a panel investigating citizen complaints of police abuse.

But a federal trial that begins Monday in a police brutality lawsuit isn't the latest chapter on how Pittsburgh officers treat young black men — even though all three officers accused of wrongfully arresting and beating the 20-year-old black plaintiff, Jordan Miles, are white, his attorney said.

"I don't think this case is the kind of case that's a bellwether," said Miles' attorney J. Kerrington Lewis. "I think this is the kind of case that happens when you have policemen who are cutting corners and are actually rogue-type cops."

Jordan Miles was an 18-year-old violist at the city's performing arts high school when he was beaten and arrested walking to his grandmother's house in his crime-ridden neighborhood the night of Jan. 12, 2010. Officers Richard Ewing, Michael Saldutte and David Sisak contend Miles was acting suspiciously and they thought a bulge in his coat pocket was a gun. They later said they found only a soda bottle.

Miles acknowledges running, struggling and kicking, but only because the officers didn't identify themselves as they rushed from an unmarked cruiser on a detail aimed at identifying suspects about to commit drug or weapons crimes. He was charged with resisting arrest, prowling and other crimes.

The police union attorney, Bryan Campbell, contends the plainclothes officers clearly identified themselves and used only the necessary force to answer Miles' "donkey kicks" and what they believed was a gun.

Campbell said the jury, to be selected Monday, must determine whether the tactics the officers used in subduing Miles were reasonable based on their training and, more importantly, the information the officers had about Miles at that time.

Lewis argues the police went too far because Miles weighed about 140 pounds while the officers weighed a combined 600 pounds, and two had martial arts training. Miles' dreadlocks were pulled from his head and, Lewis said, evidence from a city panel that probes misconduct allegations showed the officers feared Miles was so badly beaten he might die.

Miles was left with a brain injury and resulting short-term memory problems — a recent test showed his math work was at a 5th-grade level — that Lewis contends derailed Miles' plans to escape his surroundings by getting an arts education. The city has paid $75,000 to settle his claims against the police department itself and could pay more if the jury decides the officers violated Miles' civil rights.

Miles denies having the soda bottle, much less a gun, though the officers are expected to call as a witness a friend who told the FBI Miles acknowledged having a bottle. The FBI closed its civil rights investigation last year without criminally charging the police.

Miles' friend has recanted, Lewis said. U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster has yet to rule on whether the officers can even mention the soda bottle at trial. Miles' attorneys argue the officers "spoiled" that evidence by claiming to have thrown the bottle away, even though it's listed in court papers as the reason they stopped him.

A district judge dismissed all criminal charges against Miles after a neighbor testified at a preliminary hearing that she knew him, and police never asked her if he could be near her property. The police claimed otherwise in an affidavit filed with the charges.

In a ruling on evidence last week, Lancaster said Miles may offer evidence of the officers' alleged "prior bad acts" if they claim to have always done their jobs by the book. A police commander has given a sworn statement that the officers have lied to justify stopping suspects, and Chief Nathan Harper said the officers are the target of more community complaints than others on the same detail.

Campbell, the police union attorney, says such a high volume of complaints would be normal against officers who do the best work.

But Lewis said the complaints have done what they're designed to do: single out officers with a penchant for bending the rules who, in this case, hurt an innocent young man.

"This kid was a jewel," Lewis said. "He had a great future and that's been taken away from him because these officers got carried away, because these officers took shortcuts and violated the law, and in the end they violated him."

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