by Rich Lord
Robert Aldred finished his shift as a waiter one June night in 2017, went out with friends, returned home and thought little of the broken screen door on his Mount Washington rental house. Aldred went to his third-floor bedroom and fell asleep.
In the wee hours, multiple Pittsburgh police officers with a dog entered the room, according to the lawsuit Aldred filed last year. He said he was in his bed. The city, in a legal filing, alleged he was “lying on the floor.”
Aldred’s lawsuit said the police “unleashed the canine officer on Mr. Aldred and allowed and encouraged the canine to attack” him, and that the dog “sunk his teeth all the way down into Mr. Aldred’s right forearm” and bit his right thigh.
The city’s lawyers, in a motion, wrote that the officers were responding to an anonymous report of a burglary in progress, found Aldred’s screen door open, and described the resulting encounter more succinctly: “Officers used K9 force to detain plaintiff.”
Aldred, now 35, was not charged with any crime in the incident.
Aldred’s lawsuit was one of 39 federal cases filed since 2009 alleging excessive force by police in Allegheny County and reviewed by PublicSource. Some are ongoing, while others resolved with judgments or settlements ranging from $5,400 to $5.5 million.
PublicSource reviewed the cases because federal court is typically the referee of last resort in disputes between citizens and police. Officials sometimes portray the court as a backstop against other systems’ shortcomings. For instance, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, questioned by PublicSource in August about the record of the city’s Office of Municipal Investigations, said: “Certainly, if OMI were making decisions that were going against what people believed, people would have the ability to take us to court and to be able to settle in court.”
Scholars of law enforcement, though, view federal court as an uneven playing field on which results have little to do with the severity of a constitutional violation or the injuries caused.
Varied cases, wildly different outcomes
The settlements and judgments for nearly 12 years of cases totaled nearly $9.8 million, of which $5.5 million was paid to Leon D. Ford Jr. He was paralyzed in a much-publicized 2012 incident that started as a traffic stop. Pittsburgh police mistook him for another man and the confrontation ended in a struggle in a moving car and point-blank shots by an officer into Ford’s torso.
Robert Aldred flips through photos on his phone showing injuries sustained when a police dog bit him in June 2017. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
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