‘Organized chaos’: G-20 hearings begin in Pittsburgh municipal court

By Lindsay Carroll

Perhaps a member of security staff at city court described yesterday’s G-20 arrest hearings… Perhaps a member of security staff at city court described yesterday’s G-20 arrest hearings best: “This is crazy as hell.”

Hundreds of police officers, lawyers and defendants — many of whom were Pitt students — came to Pittsburgh Municipal Court to find what some lawyers called “organized chaos.”

“No one knows what’s going on,” attorney Sean Logue said.

By 8 a.m., around 100 people had lined up outside the court entrance to go through the metal detectors. Inside, a day of confusion, contradiction and emotion awaited.

The district attorney’s office had set up a plea-bargaining table to make offers to some defendants.

The prosecution color-coded defendants’ files to designate which deals they were eligible to receive. Those with green or yellow stickers were offered reductions from misdemeanor to summary offenses or postponements for 50 hours of community service, which will be proved at a later date.

Lawyers and defendants crowded the second floor of the building, discussing their sentences, making deals and trying to figure out where to be and at what time.

At one point, the din of the crowd got to be too much.

“You need to be quiet,” a deep-voiced officer shouted from behind the district attorney’s table, commanding nearly instant attention. “We need to get this taken care of.”

In the terms of the deal, people offered community service could only accept if they did not want to go to their preliminary hearing, district attorney spokesman Mike Manko said.

But many of the criminal complaints the defendants received were vague, to the point where some defendants weren’t told the specific complaints officers had against them. See the related graphic for examples from the documents. Visit pittnews.com to see the full documents.

“It was based on what they were charged with,” Manko said of the offer. “It was made clear to them this morning and they were given the option of what to do.”

Manko said it didn’t matter whether specifics of the arrest were given in the criminal complaint.

Before the hearings began, Magisterial District Judge Kevin Cooper commanded silence in the courtroom. People awaiting their hearing were whispering with lawyers and one another asa few cell phones rang.

Cooper stopped one of the cases, unrelated to the G-20, to give a warning to remain quiet.

“There will be absolutely no talking in this court room. There are too many important cases today for there to be talking,” he said.

He asked those who came into the room late to swear themselves in.

“Your right hand. Not your left hand. Your right hand.”

Hearings were held in three separate courtrooms. Plea bargains were officially made in one small 21-seat arraignment room, where defendants and their attorneys accepted community service or asked for their hearings to be postponed.

Withdrawn vs. dismissed

The prosecution withdrew charges for Pitt student Nathan Poloni, along with Ryan Kingston and Kimberly Siegel, Manko said. Kingston and Siegal were put in the group offered community service by mistake, he said, and their charges will be officially withdrawn.

Pitt student Patrick Daley also had his charges withdrawn, which will formally be announced during his hearing on Friday.

Three other charges were dismissed by judges, which often happens when there isn’t enough evidence for a trial.

Joanne Ong, who was arrested for failure to disperse and disorderly conduct on Sept. 25, had her charges dismissed.

During her preliminary hearing, Cooper asked Ong, a CMU student, why she had been on the Cathedral Lawn for about an hour and why she didn’t go back on Forbes Avenue toward her campus.

Ong became emotional during her hearing. Her voice cracked as she gave her testimony. She said she’d been watching a concert and went to get food with her friends when she came through Pitt’s campus.

“There was no logical way to go,” Ong said. “The most logical way was through the Cathedral Lawn.”

She continued to say police released riot-control gas before she reached Fifth Avenue. She said when she came to the area, she didn’t realize there was a need to arrest people, and people felt confused as to where to go.

“I was standing there for 15 minutes, it’s not like I was standing there for an hour. A lot happened in between that,” she said.

The judge paused.

“I believe you. Case dismissed.”

A lieutenant’s testimony

The defendants were organized into groups according to when they were arrested — Thursday, Sept. 24 during the day, Thursday night and Friday night. They were further organized into three groups according to whom their arresting officers were and whether their arrest circumstances were similar.

They proceeded to the bench with their attorneys in small groups of four or five. The officers gave testimony about their complaints, the defense was given a chance to respond, and the judge made a decision — then proceeded with the next group.

Before the judge called upon the groups to begin their arguments, city police Lt. Ed Trapp gave what the district attorney called an “overarching” testimony for the prosecution on the general purposes of police action on Sept. 25. The officer couldn’t testify to specific arrest circumstances because he wasn’t present for every arrest.

“We hope that this general description will suffice for all of police testimony for these cases,” prosecutor Geoffrey Melada said.

At some points, what Trapp said in his testimony conflicted with testimony of other police officers, as well as with the criminal complaints.

Trapp said he helped plan the G-20 police action for two months prior to the event. He said that there was no planned Pittsburgh police action for Friday night, since the national security event declared by the Secret Service was in effect until President Barack Obama left town, at about 6:30 p.m. Friday.

“That was the end of the G-20,” Trapp said.

He said officers assembled at the scene because of a flyer advertising a “F*** the Police Push Back Bash” rally.

Some protesters at the People’s March, which had run from Oakland to Downtown that Friday afternoon, distributed flyers saying that people would gather in Schenley Plaza to protest police action from the previous night, Sept. 24.

Trapp said he arrived at the plaza around 9:10 p.m. Friday. He said around 100 to 150 people were there, and police lined up along the east, south and west sides of the Plaza, leaving the northern end nearest to the Cathedral open. Trapp referred to a large print-out of a Google map of the area.

He said that the crowd seemed to become “more belligerent,” but still there was no interaction on the part of police. He said Chief of police Nate Harper and Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson gave the order not to clear the Plaza until the park closed at 11 p.m.

Trapp told officers to let people out on the southern end of the Plaza, toward the Frick Fine Arts Building, so business districts that had been damaged the previous night on Forbes Avenue and Craig Street wouldn’t be damaged again.

He said that as long as the protest was peaceful, the officers didn’t intend to take action.

“We never wanted to arrest people,” Trapp said.

Some people in the room audibly scoffed, and Cooper threatened to remove people from the room. There wasn’t anything funny being said up at the bench, he said.

Trapp said the police received intelligence that people might come from behind the southern end of the Plaza and try to attack the police line.

“We never made it to 11 o’clock,” he said. More and more people came to the plaza — perhaps 200 to 300 — and he said he saw bottles being thrown within the crowd. He couldn’t say whether they were being thrown at police.

Trapp said at this point, those in command moved more officers in back-up lines, some with riot gear. By 10:11 p.m., the corner near the side of Hillman Library was still open. Police received a report from state police in helicopters that around 30 protesters in masks began to move into the Plaza, and Trapp said protesters threw more objects.

Police requested that the SWAT team bring the Long Range Acoustic Device, a machine capable of emitting loud messages or sounds to quell someone. They stationed one at the corner of Forbes Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard, closest to the William Pitt Union, and one at Schenley Drive, near the Frick Fine Arts Building.

Trapp said twice that the first order to disperse was given at 10:42 p.m. The orders were given nearly back-to-back, he said, and at 10:48, four more warnings were given.

The Pitt News recorded the first order to disperse at 10:42 p.m. It reported that police gave the order a total of nine times, with the last at 10:58 p.m., two minutes before the Plaza closed. A city police news release also said the first order to disperse was given at 10:42 p.m.

Trapp said during this time, “a number of people” went out the northeast corner of the Plaza, and some left through the south end, as police originally intended. He said police “didn’t really respond at all” and let people leave.

At 10:53, he said police received reports from supervisors that people were throwing things at the police lines, so police moved to push the rest of the people out of the Plaza.

“By then, the crowd was fairly small,” Trapp said.

Another line of police officers was stationed in front of the Carnegie buildings to protect them, he said.

He estimated that about 100 people assembled on Forbes Avenue across from the Cathedral Lawn. He said the group of people stopped and turned to face the police at the museums, but didn’t try to walk away. Trapp said Donaldson gave an order to push the crowd out, toward Heinz Chapel and the Cathedral.

At 11:07 p.m., Donaldson told Trapp to begin arrests if the crowd didn’t disperse, Trapp said. Arrests began to be made at 11:11 p.m.

He said police moved the LRAD into Forbes Avenue and broadcast the warnings as the crowd went along — although this conflicts with the time The Pitt News reported the broadcasts ended.

An LRAD operator who testified later said that at its lowest volume, the order to disperse can be heard from a quarter-mile away.

He said the “control on the ground passed two SWAT units” at some point after this. He said the training for these situations is to encircle arrestees.

Later, Trapp said he ended up at the intersection of Forbes Avenue and Bouquet Street, where approximately 30 people had gathered at about 11:56 p.m on the corner across from the Original Hot Dog Shop. He said the LRAD had been brought down making broadcasts, and he could hear the broadcasts during this time.

Trapp said he went to the group with his visor up, which was against safety protocol.

The Pitt News previously reported that police created a booking center a couple of blocks up from that area on Fifth Avenue, near the Graduate School of Public Health. At 12:07 a.m., police received an order for “tactical withdrawal.”

“They could go anywhere”

Several of the defendants’ lawyers asked to cross-examine Trapp after prosecutor Melada finished. Because of Trapp’s testimony about the LRAD and his lack of expertise on the subject, Cooper continued to ask the district attorney’s office to bring an LRAD operator in to testify.

During the cross-examination, Trapp said the crowd could have dispersed to several locations, up Bellefield Avenue or Dithridge Street toward Fifth Avenue, for example.

“They could go anywhere,” he said.

He said no police were on Bellefield when the LRAD was brought out and police were in front of the museum. But Detective Robert Shaw, an arresting officer who testified later, said he was part of a group of police officers who moved onto Bellefield Avenue toward the Cathedral Lawn.

Several lawyers tried to point out this inconsistency.

One lawyer asked Trapp if people could disperse to the Cathedral Lawn.

“Absolutely,” Trapp said.

Lawyer Mike Healy later pointed out that the Cathedral Lawn seemed to have been deemed a “point of egress.” Yet many people, including two Pitt News photographers, were arrested in this area.

Calls and e-mails sent to city police spokeswoman Diane Richard were not returned..

Pitt law professor Jennifer Sadler said it can be common for testimonies to conflict within court.

“Nothing is exact in any criminal case,” she said.

Pitt law professor John Burkoff said defendants could raise this issue with the officer in the future and try to impeach his testimony.

“But the truth is that different people who were onlookers at a crime scene or accident scene will often say different things,” he said.

He said even when testimonies between separate hearings conflict, it doesn’t mean their testimonies are tainted. But the attorneys can use the conflicting testimonies in trial.

Sadler said she understood why people might have felt the situation with city court was chaotic.

“City court is pretty crazy, anyway,” she said. “It happens fast, too. That doesn’t add to the understanding of the situation, I think.”

Procedures began at 8 a.m. at city court yesterday and lasted until around 5 p.m.

About 75 more people have preliminary hearings scheduled for Friday.