Officer allegedly draws weapon on 7-year-old girl

Mother, daughters stopped on way to Pee Wee League football game
By Deborah M. Todd

New Pittsburgh Courier Online
Sep. 20, 2006

HARASSED--Pamela Lawton, center, holds her daughters, Jasmine, 8, left, and Joshalyn, 7. Lawton claims a police officer threatened to shoot Joshalyn.

What was supposed to be a typical drive through a peaceful Shadyside neighborhood, turned into a standoff with a police officer threatening the life of a 7-year old girl, according one local mother.

Pamela Lawton of the Hill District said on Aug. 26, she was on her way to Homewood for a Pee Wee League football game with her two daughters, 7-year old Joshalyn, 8-year old Jasmine, and two other children ages 2 and 3. She said she was driving her green, 1998 Ford Windstar and was approaching the intersection at Kentucky Street and Negley Avenue when a Pittsburgh Police cruiser signaled for her to pull over.

“He was flying up behind me and I stopped immediately because I wanted to stay in view,” said Lawton. “I felt like there was something wrong—why would he fly up behind me like that? Plus, I had my kids in the car so it kind of scared me.”

What Lawton said happened next was beyond anything her initial fears predicted.

“I said, ‘What’s the problem, officer?’ and he said ‘Get your hands up,’” wrote Lawton in a prepared statement. “He repeated, pulled out his gun and pointed into the passenger side of the window where my youngest daughter was trying to get her seatbelt off. So, I put my hands up.”

According to Lawton, she and her children spent the next 20 to 30 minutes trying to convince Officer Eric Tatusko to put his weapon down or to at least go to the driver’s side to address the problem with the only adult in the car.

“The children were in the car screaming and crying,” she wrote. “My hands were still in the air and I was screaming ‘Help, someone help!’ over and over again.”

Florence Williams, a resident at the Kitley House Senior Center on Kentucky Street, said she didn’t see everything that happened that morning, but she knows she heard the cries for help.

“I happened to hear somebody screaming and I came to my porch,” Williams said. “I don’t know what the cop was doing because he was on the other side, but she had her arms out the door and she was hollering ‘Please, somebody help me.’”

During this time, Lawton says Tatusko refused to take her identification, never told her why she was stopped and never left the passenger side of the vehicle. She said at one point the officer got so angry he cocked his gun and said if Joshalyn moved again he would “blow her brains out.”

“He clicked the thing back and then he turned off his radio,” said Jasmine. “I was like ‘He’s going to kill us.’”

“Me and the babies were crying and (Jasmine) jumped over me for my life, and I thank my sister for doing that,” said Joshalyn.

A witness at the scene said Tatusko kept his gun drawn at the passenger side window until more officers came to the scene and told him to drop the weapon.

“When I turned the corner, there were 10 police cars and (Lawton) was in the middle,” said Rick Hill, an employee of Shadyside Nursing Rehab on Kentucky Avenue. “I heard her hollering for help and she had her hands out the window and everything. The cop already had his gun, not on her, but on the other side. When I looked in there she had kids. One cop said ‘If the kids move again, we will shoot.’”

Hill, who left a frantic voice message on Lawton’s sister’s phone during the standoff, said that once more officers arrived, they searched the vehicle for a weapon and found nothing. He also said Tatusko, who was not available for comment, was told to get into another vehicle and leave the scene.

Since that day, Lawton says she has struggled to come to terms with what happened to her family. The Shuman Center employee and former nurse, who changed careers to become part of the law enforcement community, said she doesn’t understand why she was treated as she was before, during and after the standoff. From the time she was pulled over to when she said police Lt. Cindy Windsor told her to shut up or ‘You’re going to jail and your kids are going to CYF,’ Lawton believes she and her children were treated worse than most criminals.

Lt. Windsor declined to comment other than to say that she was off of work that day. Tammy Ewin, spokesperson for the Pittsburgh Police, also declined to comment because of the case’s status with the CPRB.

As it was, Lawton ended up being cited for an insurance violation. She was fined and her car was towed, but according to her, the ultimate cost has already been paid with her daughters’ security and peace of mind.

“Your inspection can be wrong, your license can be wrong, there’s no reason for (police) to come to the passenger side and pull a gun out and aim it through the window of a 7-year old,” she said.

“I can’t even sleep at night, I just think about it every day,” said Joshalyn. “They got it deep in my mind. “He was talking to me the whole time.”

Mother tells review board about traffic stop, officer pointing gun at child
By Moustafa Ayad, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A visibly shaken Pamela Lawton told the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board last night that a city officer drew his gun on her 7-year-old daughter.

Mrs. Lawton, of the Hill District, described how, on Aug. 26, Officer Eric Tatusko of the Squirrel Hill station pulled his weapon and pointed it at Joshalyn, 7, during a traffic stop in Shadyside.

"He was trying to kill me and my babies," Mrs. Lawton said. "He told me he would blow my baby's brains out."

Police spokeswoman Tammy Ewin could not be reached for comment last night.

Elizabeth C. Pittinger, the board's executive director, said she could not speak about the facts of the case during an ongoing investigation.

Others in the room fell silent as Mrs. Lawton described how her older daughter, Jasmine, 8, began scrambling for the front seat and screaming while trying to protect her sister from the gun.

Mrs. Lawton said she was driving to Homewood with Joshalyn and Jasmine for a youth football game when Officer Tatusko signaled for her to pull over. She said she stopped her minivan just shy of the intersection of Negley and Kentucky avenues.

Mrs. Lawton said the officer approached the window on the passenger side where her daughter was sitting, pointed his weapon at the child and said: "Get your hands up."

When the officer drew the gun, Joshalyn unbuckled her seat belt and tried to jump into the back seat with her older sister as she cried to her mother, Mrs. Lawton said.

Mrs. Lawton said she pleaded with the officer to come to her side of the car and screamed out the window for help. She said she tried to give him her identification, but the officer refused to acknowledge her.

She said she was ticketed because her inspection sticker was not up-to-date and for disorderly conduct for losing control during the traffic stop and screaming for help.

"We cannot tolerate our 2-, 3-, 7- or 8-year-olds with guns in their faces," said Tim Stevens, head of the Black Political Empowerment Project. "The woman had no guns, no drugs ... last time I looked an inspection sticker was not a reason for a gun in your face."

Inside City Council Chamber, where the public hearing was held, more than 20 people stood at attention as Mrs. Lawton recounted the events.

Minister Jasiri X, of Muhammad Mosque 22 of Wilkinsburg, accompanied Mrs. Lawton to the lectern before she testified. He was flanked by 15 other members of the Nation of Islam mosque who came in support of Mrs. Lawton.

He said citizens were going to follow the investigation every step of the way. He said he was requesting a full inquiry from Police Chief Dominic J. Costa and was determined to meet with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

"When you point a gun at a 7-year-old, that is an act of terrorism," the minister said. "You cannot point a gun at a 7-year-old and not face charges."

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