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Pittsburgh mayor calls for investigation into how police dispersed East Liberty protesters

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto is calling for a full, third-party investigation into the protests in East Liberty on Monday.

The Office of Municipal Investigations, the Citizen Police Review Board, the NAACP Pittsburgh branch, American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Attorney’s Office have all been asked to look into it.

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“In order to provide clarity to the actions that occurred that day and provide third party, independent, professional analysis and recommendations, I am requesting the Office of Municipal Investigations to conduct a full investigation into the actions in East Liberty on Monday, June 1, 2020,” he wrote to OMI.

These investigations will take time to play out.

This comes after Pittsburgh police told Channel 11 News’ exchange partners at TribLIVE that tear gas was used to disperse the crowd in East Liberty Monday night.

Peduto went on to say that he’s been talking with Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich and that overall, there are "differences of opinion about what happened that day and the appropriateness of the actions of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.

According to The Trib, Public Safety spokesperson Chris Togneri said the mention of only smoke being used was specifically in regard to the police actions at the intersection of Centre Avenue and Negley Avenue. At other locations in the area, gas was, in fact, used on protesters.

“Officials stated that no gas was used, but smoke canisters were,” he said in an email to TribLIVE. “This is correct. Police used smoke to disperse a group that had attacked businesses, thrown objects at police and ignored multiple orders to disperse. After the encounter at Centre and Negley, gas was used at other locations in the East Liberty area after additional orders to disperse were issued and to aid police in their efforts to clear the streets."

When pressed about why only smoke was mentioned in Monday’s press briefing, Togneri reiterated, “Officials were asked a question at a press briefing, and they answered it.”

One protester who was in East Liberty Monday night wanted to share her experience after hours of successfully working with police to keep it peaceful. She said they made it very clear they were there for peace and not violence.

But around 7 p.m., as the curfew approached, the woman said everything changed. She told Channel 11 some peaceful protesters were wrongfully mistaken for agitators and force was used against them.

In the video she recorded, you can see police first throw a can of smoke toward the protesters. A popping sound is heard as the crowd scatters.

“It’s disgusting what happened,” the woman said. “Nobody had gone close to the police officers. No one had done anything, and that’s when they used tear gas. That’s when they started shooting rubber bullets at us."

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich both said in a press conference Monday night that only smoke was used. They held the news conference after complaints and allegations surfaced online by protesters and observers suggesting police used excessive force on peaceful protesters.

“Tonight, we used smoke as a crowd-management tool, a psychological diversion tool for the crowd because their interactions with us since Saturday — and some of these people are repeat individuals — anticipated the deployment of smoke along with chemical munitions,” SWAT Officer Stephen Mescan told reporters about escalation tactics and whether tear gas was used. “The reaction we got was immediate flight into the neighborhoods.”

According to TribLIVE, Togneri’s clarification was the first official acknowledgment outside of social media that police used tear gas and not just smoke. A tweet from the Pittsburgh Public Safety Twitter account just after 7:30 p.m. noted that a small group began breaking windows and throwing things at police.

“Officers issued several orders to disperse,” the tweet said. “Group ignored. Police used smoke and then gas to disperse group.”