A year ago this month, Jordan Miles, an 18-year-old music student at Pittsburgh's Creative and Performing Arts High School, was walking to his grandmother's home in the city's Homewood neighborhood when three undercover police officers in an unmarked white car decided he looked "suspicious." Officers Richard Ewing, Michael Saldutte and David Sisak, all white, would later say in police reports that Miles, who is black, seemed to be "sneaking around" and had a bulky object protruding from his coat that appeared to be a gun. It turned out to be a bottle of Mountain Dew--which, curiously, was never taken into evidence.
Upon seeing the men heading toward him, Miles quite understandably ran. But after a few steps, he slipped and fell. The police officers say they identified themselves upon exiting their car. Miles says they said only: "Where's the money? Where's the gun? Where's the drugs?"--questions that could signal a robbery. Even if the three men had identified themselves as police officers, it isn't hard to see why Miles would run. Three white men jumped from an unmarked car and began running toward him. At night. Given what happened to Miles next, he would have been justified in fleeing even if he had known the three men were cops.
The three officers severely beat the unarmed viola player, who is 5 feet, 5 inches tall and weighs 150 pounds. They hit him with multiple punches to the face and a knee to the head. They also tore off a large clump of his hair. The end result was the picture you see here.
Once he was out of the hospital, Miles, an honors student with no prior criminal record, was arrested and charged with loitering, aggravated assault and resisting arrest. The police claimed that earlier in the evening they had spoken with Monica Wooding, who lives in the neighborhood, and were responding to her complaint that Miles was loitering on her property without her permission. But Wooding later testified that she made no such complaint. In fact, she testified that she has known Miles, a friend of her son, for years.
Citing Wooding's testimony and the possibility of false statements in the police reports, Pennsylvania District Court Judge Oscar Petite Jr. dismissed the charges against Miles last March. Miles has since filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Ewing, Saldutte, Sisak and the city of Pittsburgh. The three officers were initially taken off undercover duties, then suspended with pay pending an investigation.
The city halted its investigation when the FBI announced it would also look into the case (although the city was not required to do so). The federal investigation is still open, but it does not seem to be making much progress. Last August, federal investigators reportedly told Miles' family that charges against the officers were unlikely, because it was their word against a teenager's. In theory, the investigation could drag on for five years, after which the statute of limitations for federal civil rights charges would bar prosecution.
Under its charter, Pittsburgh's Citizen Police Review Board is not allowed to look into the incident until all criminal investigations are completed. So while it took just a few hours to falsely charge Jordan Miles with assaulting three police officers, more than a year later, federal and local officials still can't decide whether the officers who beat him should be charged, removed from the force or, as the local police union recommends, praised for their heroism. Two of the three officers who beat Miles, Saldutte and Sisak, are accused of using excessive force in other civil rights lawsuits and complaints to the review board. One lawsuit says Saldutte beat a suspect so severely that he fractured his eye socket, dislodging his eyeball.
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh City Paper reports the three officers are not only collecting their salaries while on suspension but are also getting the overtime pay they likely would have received had they remained on duty, thanks to a generous contract the police union negotiated with the city. As of the end of 2010, according to the paper, the city had paid the officers a total of $233,882 for 11 months of not working.
This month it all got even stranger. The week of the anniversary of Miles' beating and arrest, someone put out a hoax press release under fake letterhead from the city's Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). The release said the union had changed its mind and was now calling for prosecution of Ewing, Saldutte and Sisek. The local press quickly determined that the statement was fake, and the FOP was not amused. "This is just totally outrageous that this occurred," President Dan O'Hara told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "If we catch anyone with regard to this, it's going to be multiple felonies, and that will set the example in the future."
Felonies? The press release was not an attempt to make money off the organization's name, so it wasn't fraud. It was either a poorly executed satire or a clumsy attempt to protest the FOP's support of Ewing, Saldutte and Sisek. Either way, it is speech that would almost certainly be protected by the First Amendment.
But sure enough, last week Pittsburgh police raided the offices of Dreaming Ant, a local DVD rental store, and seized computer equipment allegedly connected to the fake press release. A detective told the City Paper that the author could be charged with trademark counterfeiting and identity theft. The business announced on its website that it is temporarily closed.
That's some swift action. If the Pittsburgh police department was as aggressive in disciplining its own officers as it is in determining who made fun of the local police union, maybe it wouldn't still be dealing with the fallout from the actions of three cops who beat a kid over a bottle of Mountain Dew. As for Miles, he is attending Penn State, where he is studying crime-scene investigation. He wants to become a cop.
Radley Balko is senior editor of Reason magazine where this column originally appeared. The JFP Daily features his column every Tuesday.