By Joe Mandak
PITTSBURGH — City police wrongly arrested 25 people — and used unnecessary force against some of them — to "punish" them for participating in or being near an anti-police brutality protest after the Group of 20 summit ended in the city last year, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a lawsuit.
The ACLU filed a 42-page federal lawsuit Tuesday that alleges police created most of the problems themselves by surrounding about 100 people with officers in riot gear then ordering them to disperse. Many who tried to leave couldn't and five people who were not even at the protest were arrested blocks away, the ACLU contends.
The ACLU announced the lawsuit at a plaza near the University of Pittsburgh campus where the protest was staged on Sept. 25, 2009.
"Police declarations that peaceful anti-government demonstrations are illegal and arrest of participants in the assembly are a hallmark of totalitarian regimes, a practice the U.S. rightfully decries when it happens in Iran or Russia," Witold "Vic" Walczak, the ACLU's legal director in Pennsylvania, said Tuesday. "Unfortunately, the same practice occurred in this country during last year's G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh."
Pittsburgh police spokeswoman Diane Richard relayed a copy of the lawsuit to the city's law department, which did not immediately comment on it. An attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police, which typically represents individual officers in such lawsuits, did not immediately comment on the suit.
The lawsuit says police Chief Nate Harper and Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson sent police to the area and declared the gathering illegal. The suit claims officers without cause declared the peaceful assembly an "unlawful gathering" and ordered demonstrators to disperse.
"But instead of providing a way for people to comply with the dispersal order, police funneled everyone onto the lawns of the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning," the lawsuit said. Police then surrounded about 100 people, made them lie down, handcuffed them and "falsely charged them with failure to disperse and disorderly conduct," the lawsuit said.
Among other things, the lawsuit asks a federal judge to declare that the plaintiffs' constitutional rights were violated and to award them damages for false arrest and emotional distress.
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