Pittsburgh protesters sue police, allege excessive force

A group of protesters is suing Pittsburgh city and police officials, saying officers used unnecessary, excessive force to disperse a crowd protesting against police brutality and officials lied about the protesters’ behavior to justify that response.

The lawsuit filed Monday alleges protesters’ constitutional rights were violated when police dispersed a crowd of about 150 people protesting after the Minneapolis death of George Floyd, at one point allegedly firing blindly into a cloud of smoke and tear gas with beanbags and other projectiles. They allege police acted on a false narrative. Some of the protesters say law enforcement officers boxed them in and prevented many from being able to follow an order to disperse, arresting people who were trying to leave and even lobbing tear gas canisters and smoke at people nearly a half-mile away from the protest trying to get to their cars.

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Anti-racism protests across the U.S.
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Anti-racism protests across the U.S.
Protesters take a knee on Flatbush Avenue in front of New York City police officers during a solidarity rally for George Floyd, Thursday, June 4, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, center, joins other demonstrators in Portland, Ore., during a protest against police brutality and racism, sparked by the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after being restrained by police in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
Protesters break curfew and march, Thursday, June 4, 2020, in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Demonstrators gather near the Austin Police Department in Austin, Texas, Thursday, June 4, 2020, to protest the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day.(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Houston police chief Art Acevedo talks with members of the community gathered to mourn the death of George Floyd during a march across downtown Houston, Texas on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. - Anti-racism protests have put several US cities under curfew to suppress rioting, following the death of George Floyd while in police custody. (Photo by Mark Felix / AFP) (Photo by MARK FELIX/AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - JUNE 2: Security forces block the road as protesters gather near Lafayette Park ahead of President Trump's trip to St. John's Church in Washington, United States on June 2, 2020. Protests and riots continue in cities across US following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - JUNE 2: Security forces block the road as protesters gather near Lafayette Park ahead of President Trump's trip to St. John's Church in Washington, United States on June 2, 2020. Protests and riots continue in cities across US following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, USA - JUNE 01: Protestors are putting their hand up while approaching police officers during a protest demanding justice for George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer in Minneapolis, in Manhattan, New York City, United States on June 01, 2020. (Photo by Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - JUNE 2: Security forces block the road as protesters gather near Lafayette Park ahead of President Trump's trip to St. John's Church in Washington, United States on June 2, 2020. Protests and riots continue in cities across US following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, USA - JUNE 01: Hundreds of protestors march during a protest over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer in Minneapolis, New York City, United States on June 01, 2020. (Photo by Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, USA - JUNE 01: Police officers arrest protestors right after the curfew time during a protest demanding justice for George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer in Minneapolis, in Manhattan, New York City, United States on June 01, 2020. (Photo by Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A protester confronts police during a rally in downtown Lexington, Ky., against the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)
Demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd, Sunday, May 31, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Demonstrators start a fire as they protest the death of George Floyd, Sunday, May 31, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
A young boy holds a "Justice" sign as he peers outside the window of a car passing protesters marching through downtown for a third night of unrest Sunday May 31, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Gov. Ralph Northam issued a curfew for this evening. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
People kneel in front of the Hall of Justice in San Francisco, Sunday, May 31, 2020, at protests over the Memorial Day death of George Floyd. Floyd was a black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Demonstrators pray during a march, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Atlanta. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
A protest leader chants with demonstrators Sunday, May 31, 2020, after curfew in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Demonstrators march, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Atlanta. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
A protester tries to talk the police back amid tear gas in downtown Atlanta, Sunday, May 31, 2020. Protests continue across the country over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Law enforcement officers from Calvert County Maryland Sheriff's Office standing on the Ellipse, area just south of the White House in Washington, as they watch demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd, Sunday, May 31, 2020. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
A woman is arrested after being pulled out of a passenger seat for reckless driving as protesters take to the streets in SoHo on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in New York. Protests were held throughout the city over the death of George Floyd, a black man in police custody in Minneapolis who died after being restrained by police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Protestors confront a police officer in his car in Memphis, Tennessee during a protest over the death of George Floyd May 31, 2020. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian via AP)
Protestors throw smoke bombs back at the Shelby County Sheriff's deputies Sunday, May 31, 2020, during a protest over the death of George Floyd on May 25. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian via AP)
People break into a smoke shop on Monday, June 1, 2020, in New York. Protests were held throughout the city over the death of George Floyd, a black man in police custody in Minneapolis who died after being restrained by police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Police arrest a man in SoHo on Monday, June 1, 2020, in New York. Protests were held throughout the city over the death of George Floyd, a black man in police custody in Minneapolis who died after being restrained by police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
A white man and a black man clasp hands as police in the background guard the old state capitol in Raleigh, N.C., on Monday, June 1, 2020. It was the second day of protests in the North Carolina capital following the death of Minnesotan George Floyd while in police custody. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)
Protestors celebrate after eluding authorities and stopping traffic along Interstate 55 in Memphis, Tennessee, Sunday, May 31, 2020, during a protest over the death of George Floyd on May 25. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian via AP)
A protester holds a tattered American flag as police stand guard over the old state capitol in in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday, May 31, 2020. It was the second day of protests in the North Carolina capital following the death of Minnesotan George Floyd while in police custody. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)
A protester takes a knee as he tries to talk with police guarding the old state capitol in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday, May 31, 2020. It was the second day of protests in the North Carolina capital following the death of Minnesotan George Floyd while in police custody. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)
Police in riot gear protect the old state capitol building in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday, May 31, 2020. It was the second day of protests in the North Carolina capital following the death of Minnesotan George Floyd while in police custody. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)
A protester hugs a police officer who kneeled after protesters attending a rally against the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor chanted "Kneel with us! Kneel with us!" in Lexington, Ky., on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)
A protester holds a police officer's hand while praying together during a rally to protest the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in Lexington, Ky., on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)
A protester confronts police during a rally in downtown Lexington, Ky., against the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)
Police officers tackle a suspect trying to escape in New York, Monday, June 1, 2020. A fourth day of protests against police brutality kept New York City on edge Sunday, as thousands of people marched and many protesters and officers tried to keep the peace after days of unrest that left police cars burned and hundreds of people under arrest. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
People run as police arrive to the scene of a broken into smoke shop in New York, Monday, June 1, 2020. A fourth day of protests against police brutality kept New York City on edge Sunday, as thousands of people marched and many protesters and officers tried to keep the peace after days of unrest that left police cars burned and hundreds of people under arrest. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
A protester runs after placing a construction barrel on top of a gas grenade in downtown Fredericksburg, Va. on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star via AP)
Motorists are ordered to the ground from their vehicle by police during a protest on South Washington Street, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Motorists are ordered to the ground from their vehicle by police during a protest on South Washington Street, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Arrested protesters are loaded onto a transport bus by police on South Washington Street, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Mounted Midland County sheriff's deputies head through a crowd outside the Midland Park Mall while trying to disperse protesters during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Midland, Texas, on Sunday, May 31, 2020, following the May 25 death of George Floyd, who was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (Eli Hartman/Odessa American via AP)
A demonstrator holds up a drawing depicting George Floyd in Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday, May 31, 2020. Protests were held in U.S. cities over the death of Floyd, a black man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
Demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd in downtown Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday, May 31, 2020. Floyd was a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
Demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd in downtown Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday, May 31, 2020. Floyd was a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
A demonstrator holds a drawing depicting George Floyd in Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday, May 31, 2020. Floyd was a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
Demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd in downtown Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday, May 31, 2020. Floyd was a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
Police stop a driver in the SoHo shopping district Sunday, May 31, 2020, in New York. Protests were held throughout the city over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Las Vegas police disperse protesters with gas on the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Las Vegas, during demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)
Las Vegas Police disperse protesters with gas on the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Las Vegas, during demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)
Police officers arrest a protester Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Los Angeles, during a protest over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Nikayla Williams rallies on the Las Vegas Strip Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Las Vegas, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)
Protesters rally on the Las Vegas Strip Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Las Vegas, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)
Police officers arrest a protester Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Los Angeles, during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Activists march to the Brooklyn Bridge on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in New York. Demonstrators took to the streets of New York City to protest the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen).
A young man throws a trash can through the window of an AT&T store Sunday, May 31, 2020, in New York. Demonstrators took to the streets of New York to protest the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. 5. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen).
Activists march to the Brooklyn Bridge on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in New York. Demonstrators took to the streets of New York to protest the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen).
Protesters head away from police in Santa Monica, Calif., Sunday, May 31, 2020, during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (AP Photo/ Christian Monterrosa)
Protesters speak to Virginia Commonwealth University police who expressed solidarity with the marchers during a third night of unrest Sunday May 31, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Gov. Ralph Northam issued a curfew for this evening. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Protesters hold hands up and chant "don't shoot" during a standoff with Savannah police after a peaceful rally, Sunday, May 31, 2020, over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Stephen B. Morton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
A man with a face covering walks past a mural depicting George Floyd during a protest over the death of Floyd Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Los Angeles. Floyd died in Minneapolis on May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a police officer. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Members of California National Guard stand guard in Pershing Square, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Los Angeles. The National Guard is patrolling Los Angeles as the city begins cleaning up after a night of violence by demonstrators that saw clash with officers and torch police vehicles and pillage stores. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Demonstrators march in San Francisco on Sunday, May 31, 2020, protesting the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Demonstrators rally in San Francisco on Sunday, May 31, 2020, protesting the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A Lawrence police officer hands water to protesters in Lawrence, Kan., Sunday, May 31, 2020, during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
A woman is helped after being hit with pepper spray after curfew on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
An officer points pepper spray towards people after curfew on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
A demonstrator makes a heart sign while protesting after curfew Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Minneapolis.Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
A protest leader chants with demonstrators Sunday, May 31, 2020, after curfew in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Authorities move through gas and detain a protester as demonstrators march, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Atlanta. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Demonstrators march, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Atlanta. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
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The smaller demonstration had splintered off from an hours-long earlier protest that attracted around a thousand people on the afternoon of June 1. Police officials said after the protest that nine officers and two protesters received medical attention for injuries.

Police have said an officer was threatened, and that bricks, water bottles and other projectiles were thrown at officers before they used force to disperse the splintered crowd. They've denied they used tear gas when breaking up the protest or that they used rubber bullets, instead saying they used sponge rounds and bean bags.

Protesters say that narrative isn't true.

“I was disheartened when I turned on the news and saw a mayor that I supported... saying none of the stuff that I just saw happen, happened,” said Donovan Hayden, one of the plaintiffs. “Many of the things I heard them say to justify firing at us, I didn’t see those things happen. I didn’t see a single brick. These nine officers who got hurt, I don’t know where they came from.”

Hayden also said the peaceful protesters who shouted “this is not a riot” had stopped a group of people who were attempting to vandalize a Black-owned business. Another group talked down someone harassing a television news crew.

Messages were left seeking comment from public safety officials Monday. A spokesman for the mayor declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs include some of the more than 20 protesters who faced charges for failure to disperse. The District Attorney’s office dropped those charges, but attorneys for the protesters say there are larger issues of police conduct that need to be addressed. They want a ban on “less than lethal munitions” and the use of tear gas against nonviolent groups and when officers cannot see their intended targets.

A video from the tense confrontation included in the complaint shows officers lining up across a street and issuing orders to disperse for several minutes before officers fire smoke and a flash bang into the crowd. Then a few projectiles can be seen being flung toward officers, but the lawyers and protesters say it was only after officers began using force.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who initially praised officers in the hours after the protest, has said there are substantial differences between police and protester narratives about the use of force that night. He has asked the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board to investigate.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in the Western District of Pennsylvania includes videos of law enforcement officers firing projectiles at protesters through a thick cloud of gas and smoke, firing a canister at the chest of a female protester from about 10 feet (3 meters) away, firing tear gas and smoke at people walking in small groups away from the protest site and arresting people who are trying to leave.

Simon Phillips said he was leaving the protest to walk home when he was boxed into an alley by SWAT officers. He was handcuffed in zip ties and sat on the curb for more than an hour before being charged with a misdemeanor failure to disperse.

The zip ties cut into his wrist, leaving blood on the ground, and Phillips was billed almost $900 for the stitches officers insisted he get so he could be booked into the jail, he said.

Nicole Rulli and her fiance were walking to their car with her 13-year-old son, blocks away from the initial police confrontation, when a SWAT vehicle pulled up to an intersection where Rulli stopped to light a cigarette. Video of the encounter shows officers exit the back of the vehicle, pull a pin on a canister of what Rulli said was tear gas, and lob it at her without yelling any commands.

Rulli said the canister hit her foot and released its contents, sending her to the ground coughing and struggling for breath. A legal observer who filmed the encounter called 911 and requested an ambulance, but when none showed up after more than 30 minutes, Rulli turned to finding her son, who ran several blocks to a parking lot where others helped flush the irritants from his eyes.

“I never thought they would do things to someone who wasn’t in a group. I didn’t have a sign. If you tell us to move or disperse, and we don’t listen, that's one thing, but you didn’t say a word... no one says anything until I scream,” Rulli said.

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