Measured response the right approach

June 18, 2014

It would be easy to jump to any number of conclusions about an incident between a police officer and a woman he arrested during a gay pride event in Pittsburgh over the weekend, but that’s exactly what authorities investigating the clash should not do.

According to the Pittsburgh officer, Souroth Chatterji, 19-year-old Ariel Lawther of Harmony assaulted a man who was at PrideFest to preach against gay marriage. When Chatterji moved to intervene, Lawther allegedly began scuffling with the officer, who is shown on video striking the woman in the midsection while in the process of subduing her. Chatterji has been put on desk duty while the incident is investigated by the city.

One might question why a police officer would need to hit a woman multiple times in the stomach to take her down, but Chatterji’s report sheds some light on the reasoning, at least from his perspective.

“In a rapidly evolving and tenuous situation I grabbed Lawther by the head and swung her out of the crowd. As I was doing this I was struck and grabbed numerous times by Lawther and others,” the officer wrote in court documents, according to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The officer said Lawther “grabbed at my vest, chest and belt area in an attempt to injure me,” and he said he was dazed at one point when he was struck in the head from behind. Chatterji said he punched Lawther in the midsection “to distract her enough so I could handcuff her” after she had “violently pulled away in an attempt to fight me again.”

While we don’t condone excessive use of force by police officers, we also recognize that officers, on a daily basis, can face any number of threats to their safety, even their lives. They have to make split-second decisions about the level of force necessary to best subdue suspects, defuse dangerous situations and protect themselves, other officers and the public.

Had Chatterji allowed the confrontation over the weekend to continue, might others have been emboldened to attack him? Might someone have tried to get control of his firearm? It’s possible.

We don’t know whether Lawther makes it a habit to engage in behavior such as that alleged at PrideFest, but we do know that she is awaiting a hearing on charges that she assaulted her mother last November. In the latest incident, she’s facing counts of assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

A Post-Gazette report said Pittsburgh police operate under a policy that allows officers, in the interest of their own protection, to use one level of force “beyond what is being used on them.” If Chatterji’s account of the incident is accurate, it would seem to us that his actions were not obviously beyond the pale.

Mayor Bill Peduto, following a call by the LGBT advocacy group Delta Foundation for an investigation, held a dog-and-pony-show-style news conference, promising to get to the bottom of the matter. We found that unnecessary, and we wonder if that level of publicity would be afforded to such an investigation if the alleged victim of overzealous policing had been your average Joe or Jane from the South Side or the Hill District.

This newspaper has clearly and repeatedly advocated for equality, including marriage equality, for members of the LGBT community, but gaining equal rights does not, or should not, confer any special or extra benefits upon a person or group.

We’re not in a position to make any judgments about Lawther’s character or behavior, but it’s a fact that every group of people – gay people and “straight” people, Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists, Democrats and Republicans, professional athletes and entertainers, and yes, even newspaper editors – has members who act disreputably and cast an unfavorable light on the others.

Certainly, it’s a valid pursuit to determine whether the officer in this case used bad judgment or excessive force. But we hope his actions will not be viewed through a different prism, just because of the person involved, the group she was with or the event where the fracas occurred.

Not every incident involving a gay person, or one attending a gay pride event, is anti-gay or a hate crime. Sometimes it is simply a person’s actions, not their orientations or associations, that determine the treatment they receive.



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