PITTSBURGH - A lawsuit filed against the city of Pittsburgh alleges that a family of six was forced from their home at gunpoint, illegally and without a warrant, during a predawn raid in January 2014.
The suit -- filed on behalf of Tabatha Werkmeister, Grinage Dion Wilson and their four young children, ages 2 through 9 -- claims that members of the Pittsburgh SWAT team broke down the door to their Fleming Avenue apartment, threw in a smoke bomb and forcibly removed them. They were then held in the back of an unheated truck for 30 to 45 minutes in temperatures of about 20 degrees.
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“I was just totally stunned. I didn't know what was going on, why they were there,” Werkmeister said.
Officers involved in the Jan. 25 raid were “dressed in full body armor and heavily armed with assault rifles,” according to the suit, which challenges the city’s use of paramilitary force without taking “constitutionally required precautions to protect innocent citizens from the terror and harm such force invariably inflicts.”
In addition to the city, the lawsuit targets then Police Chief Regina McDonald and 10 individual unnamed officers.
The suit claims that none of the family members, who were barefoot and dressed in their bedclothes when they were forced from their home into the snow, had committed or were suspected of committing any crime.
“There were two doors in the front of the house, and (the officers) didn’t know which door to go into. So they flipped a coin and picked the wrong one and used paramilitary full SWAT gear and rifles to storm into my client’s house,” Maggie Coleman, Werkmeister’s attorney, said.
According to the lawsuit, Werkmeister was asked by a SWAT officer whether she knew “Marlo.” Werkmeister said she did not, but believed it might be the resident of a downstairs apartment unit.
The complaint alleges that officers knew there was a “substantial likelihood” that they were entering the wrong home, and that the city and its SWAT officers “have a policy and practice of using the SWAT team to perform routine police work.”
No drugs or other contraband were found in the apartment raided, and no one was arrested or charged with any crime.
In the suit, it is claimed that the family’s constitutionally protected rights to be free from unreasonable searches, seizures and excessive force by those acting under color of state law were violated.
An attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police said the SWAT team did find the suspect they were looking for in the other apartment, with a gun and ammunition. The FOP attorney claimed Werkmeister, her boyfriend and children were removed for safety reasons.
Werkmeister said she doesn’t believe the attorney’s explanation and said the officers even scolded her for not having an apartment number on the door.
“(They didn’t apologize), nope. (They said), ‘There's a car. You can get your door fixed.’ And they said, ‘You should have a number on your door,’” Werkmeister said.
A Pittsburgh police spokesperson said she could not talk about the pending lawsuit.
Calls to the mayor’s office Thursday were not immediately returned.