Prisoners’ Rights Advocates File Class Action Lawsuit Against Allegheny County Over Failed Mental Health Care System at ACJ.

September 15, 2020
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:
William Lukas, Abolitionist Law Center, wjlukas@alcenter.org
Rebecca Susman, PA Institutional Law Project, rsusman@pailp.org

PITTSBURGH – The Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP), and Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP filed a class action lawsuit today on behalf of people with psychiatric disabilities incarcerated in Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). The lawsuit alleges severe and systemic constitutional violations, as well as violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, for the jail’s failure to provide adequate mental health care and its discriminatory and brutal treatment of people with psychiatric disabilities.

The lawsuit asserts that although ACJ houses hundreds of people with psychiatric disabilities, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, ACJ is lacking a functioning mental health care system.   Every aspect of a comprehensive system for mental health care, from intake screening, to medication management, provision of counseling and therapy, suicide prevention, and training is either non-existent or wholly deficient at ACJ.  

“We recognize there are many employees at ACJ who try their best to provide care, yet face an impossible task due to inadequate systems, resources and direction,” said Keith Whitson, Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.  “This lawsuit focuses primarily on the illegal systemic failures that make treatment nearly nonexistent, and the frequent imposition of punishment in place of treatment.”

The complaint contends that instead of ensuring proper staff training and adequate mental health staffing levels, or creating policies that provide adequate care, Warden Orlando Harper and Deputy Warden Laura Williams oversee a system that responds to people in mental health crisis with brutal levels of force and solitary confinement. People with psychiatric disabilities are tased, sprayed with OC, beaten, and placed in restraint chairs for several hours for minor infractions and for simply requesting mental health care. They are commonly placed in solitary confinement for weeks and months on end, often without having a hearing, in conditions universally acknowledged by correctional experts, courts and the United Nations as torture.

“An extensive investigation of the conditions at ACJ, including hundreds of interviews of those currently and formerly incarcerated at ACJ as well as former employees, and review of medical records, have reinforced what we already knew–the system of mental health care at ACJ is appallingly and unconstitutionally inadequate,” said Jaclyn Kurin, staff attorney for the Abolitionist Law Center.

As a result of the systemic lack of mental health care and discrimination against people with psychiatric disabilities, the jail has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. These dehumanizing conditions leave a lasting impact on communities outside of the jail, primarily Black communities. While Black people only make up 13.4% of the population of Allegheny County, they constitute a striking 61% of those held at ACJ. Most people invariably leave ACJ worse off than they enter it, making it more difficult to re-integrate into their communities and further fueling the cycles of incarceration, poverty, and trauma.

“Allegheny County is failing its most vulnerable communities by incarcerating people with psychiatric disabilities and then refusing to uphold its moral and constitutional obligation to provide treatment,” stated Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, Managing Attorney at the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.  “Without a complete overhaul of the practices at ACJ, people will continue to suffer long lasting trauma and grievous harm.”

The class action lawsuit seeks to represent all people with psychiatric disabilities who are currently, or will in the future, be held at the Allegheny County Jail. The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania and names Laura Williams, Orlando Harper, Michael Barfield, and Allegheny County as defendants. The plaintiffs are represented by Bret Grote, Quinn Cozzens, Swain Uber, and Jacklyn Kurin of the Abolitionist Law Center; Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project; and Keith Whitson of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.

A copy of the complaint is available here:

PITTSBURGH’S SECRET POLICE

Portland is not unique. Peduto’s police are no different from Trump’s gestapo. Peduto and the City of Pittsburgh allow their robocops to hide their identities and refuse to identify themselves to community members when asked. Peduto says he “opposes” Federal agents in Pittsburgh – which makes sense if he already has police in our city openly and anonymously terrorizing and surveilling Black community members, activists, and witnesses. Police that collaborate with Homeland Security, the DEA, and FBI to target, isolate, and detain our friends and family members.

Below is a redacted vs unredacted excerpt of Section 4.0 of PBP FORM 290, ORDER #: 42-13  (2/14/19) which outlines the Operational Guidelines of Pittsburgh’s “Special Response Team (SRT)” aka riot cops. It is unclear why the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police have attempted to redact these paragraphs, except maybe to hide fascistic policies that are both embarrassing and jeopardizing to their public image as crime-fighting comic book heroes – particularly in white imaginations. The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police tried to hide its policies allowing its officers to hide their own identities. They didn’t do a good job of hiding it, so we thought we’d share with you all.

Hover and slide the divider below [] to view the unredacted version ⤵️

Hover and slide the divider [] above to view the unredacted version ⤴️

Anonymous riot cops and secret police are not new. We are reminded of COINTELPRO‘s presence in Pittsburgh. We are reminded that anonymous cop brigades evolved from execution firing squads: the identity of the state agent who fires the lethal shot is never to be revealed.

If local agents of state violence remain unidentifiable, then how do we keep them accountable?

While Bill Peduto praises the Pittsburgh Police’s collaboration with Trump’s FBI to arrest activists and alleged petty vandals via the Damage Assessment and Accountability Task Force (DAAT) –they’ve made no effort to identify the following agents of state violence.

We are asking for the public to help the Mayor find his courage and publicly identify these members of our city’s very own secret police:

Hover and click to view footage of the June 1st East Liberty police attacks:

PROTESTERS FILE CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT AGAINST PITTSBURGH POLICE AND CITY OFFICIALS FOR POLICE ATTACKS ON EAST LIBERTY PROTEST

To view the complaint and videos of the June 1 police attack on peaceful protestors in East Liberty visit: bit.ly/eastlibertypoliceattack

If you were at the protest and think you might be a class member, please fill out this form at bit.ly/intakeeastlibertypoliceattack and email to: info@obrienlawpgh.com , msc@obrienlawpgh.com , qcozzens@alcenter.org

On June 1, 2020, a peaceful protest in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh against nationwide police violence turned into a yet another demonstration of excessive force by the police. Protesters who participated in this protest have filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against Pittsburgh Bureau of Police (PBP) officials, Mayor Bill Peduto, and the City of Pittsburgh after police unleashed violence on peaceful demonstrators, then rounded up and arrested nearly two dozen people who committed no crimes. The protesters are represented by attorneys from O’Brien Law, Abolitionist Law Center, and Elzer Law Firm, LLC.

Named Plaintiffs include a 13-year-old boy, his mother, and her fiancé, who attended the protest to learn about the First Amendment, but instead were met with tear gas and violence; a dance instructor who was arrested outside his apartment while he was on his way home; a local non-profit worker who was gassed and chased at gunpoint; an international peace observer who spent the night in jail after being tear gassed and arrested while trying to walk to their car; and a man who was shot in the back by four rubber bullets as he tried to leave the protest. 

On June 1, the PBP escalated a peaceful protest into a scene of pandemonium, panic, violence and bloodshed. The PBP deployed hundreds of officers to counter approximately 150 protesters.  As the assembled protesters held their hands in the air and chanted, “This is not a riot,” and “Hands up – Don’t shoot,” PBP ordered its officers to attack them with explosives, chemical agents and ammunition which is known to seriously wound and sometimes kill its targets.  PBP officers drove ambulances past injured protesters without stopping. After ordering peaceful protesters to leave the area, PBP officers blocked their escape with chemical gas, riot police and mounted patrols. The PBP ordered tactical officers dressed in paramilitary garb to patrol a residential neighborhood in armored vehicles and arbitrarily throw canisters of chemical gas at anyone they encountered. The PBP arrested twenty-two protestors for failing to disperse, subjecting them to confinement in the midst of a global COVID-19 pandemic.  The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office withdrew the charges for every person arrested due to a lack of sufficient evidence or allegations to support the criminal charges.

Immediately following the PBP’s overwhelming and unjustified use of force in East Liberty, Mayor Peduto, Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich and Chief of Police Scott Schubert held a press conference at which they disseminated flagrant lies to conceal and/or justify the PBP’s use of force against peaceful protesters. These officials accused protesters of hurling rocks and “volleys of bricks” at PBP officers, and vehemently denied using chemical agents.  Numerous videos statements were patently false.

“In Pittsburgh and across the country, police officers’ use of chemical weapons such as tear gas and projectile munitions such as rubber bullets, beanbag rounds, and sponge grenades against protesters has resulted in serious and debilitating injuries. Moreover, the routine and indiscriminate use of these tactics deters would-be protesters from exercising their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble and petition the government,” said the attorneys representing the Protesters.  

The lawsuit seeks an order preventing the City of Pittsburgh from declaring peaceful protests unlawful and from using chemical agents and projectiles against peaceful protesters.[1] The lawsuit also seeks money damages for protesters whose rights were violated.

The suit was filed the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania by Attorneys Margaret Coleman of O’Brien Law, Quinn Cozzens of Abolitionist Law Center, and Christine T. Elzer of Elzer Law Firm, LLC.

For additional information contact

Margaret Coleman

msc@obrienlawpgh.com

Quinn Cozzens

qcozzens@alcenter.org

Christine Elzer

celzer@elzerlaw.com


[1] Federal courts have issued similar injunctions against police departments in several cities, including Denver, Seattle, and Oakland

MEET THE PROTESTERS-PLAINTIFFS

To view the complaint and videos of the June 1 police attack on peaceful protestors in East Liberty visit: bit.ly/eastlibertypoliceattack

If you were at the protest and think you might be a class member, please fill out this form at bit.ly/intakeeastlibertypoliceattack and email to: info@obrienlawpgh.com , msc@obrienlawpgh.com , qcozzens@alcenter.org

POLICE TERROR at EAST LIBERTY PROTEST 06/01

Abolitionist Law Center posted this statement to Facebook on the June 2nd, in the early morning following the Pittsburgh Police’s violent descent upon peaceful protestors, terrorizing them with tear gas and excessive force in East Liberty. The post reached over 55,000 views and over 700 shares – aligning with the greater public’s eye-witness accounts of police terror and contradicting what the Pittsburgh Police had said during the news conference following the protest: that tear gas was NOT deployed.

Mayor Peduto’s office and the Citizen Police Review Board of Pittsburgh received countless complaints of police violence from protestors and bystanders who were brutalized, and those who had witnessed the use of tear gas, firing of bean bags, and violent arrests. In the afternoon of June 2nd, the Pittsburgh Police revealed that they had INDEED used tear gas – a chemical weapon banned in war – on peaceful protestors in the June 1 East Liberty protest.

Mayor Peduto has called for independent investigations into the police’s use of force on protestors supporting Black Liberation and police abolition in Pittsburgh.