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Lawsuit Alleges Excessive Force in ’20 Search

ACLU, Take Action join three plaintiffs in pressing case against city, county

By Yousuf Lachhab Ibrahim
The Tube City Almanac
December 06, 2023
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Searches that took place in McKeesport in 2020 after the shooting of a city police officer amounted to “martial law,” said a community activist on Monday during a press conference announcing a wide-reaching lawsuit against the city and Allegheny County.

Fawn Walker Montgomery, founder of Take Action Advocacy Group, was joined by plaintiffs and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. Together, they allege that police violated residents’ civil rights in December 2020 while searching for the suspect in the shooting of McKeesport police Officer Gerry Athans.

In the complaint filed this week in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, three McKeesport residents — Courtney Thompkins, Ezra Dixon and Kim Neal — name as defendants the city of McKeesport, Allegheny County, city and county police, and more than three dozen police officers. Most of the police officers are listed only as “John Does” and “Jane Does.”

The complaint accuses police of unfairly targeting Black and African-American residents, using excessive force, and violating constitutional provisions against unlawful search and seizure during the hunt for Athans’ shooter. The lawsuit demands both compensation and punitive damages.

Read the lawsuit filed this week

“We are pushing back an attempt to set a standard that Black people in McKeesport are meant to bear a collective responsibility for the alleged actions of one individual,” said Tanisha Long, a Black woman and the Allegheny County community organizer for the non-profit Abolitionist Law Center, during the press conference, which was held near the McKeesport police station.

Long said she was searched at the time while trying to visit her mother at UPMC McKeesport hospital.

An intense search that included checkpoints on roads and bridges began Dec. 20, 2020, after Athans was shot three times after arresting a suspect identified as Koby Lee Francis, then 22, of McKeesport.

The incident, which happened behind the McKeesport police station at the Fourth Avenue entrance, was captured on surveillance video. Athans, who was struck in the neck and torso, was wearing a ballistic vest and survived the attack. He has since recovered and returned to work.

Francis fled the scene and was apprehended in Clarksburg, W.Va., on Dec. 29, 2020 by U.S. Marshals.

The lawsuit alleges that between Dec. 20, 2020, and Dec. 29, 2020, Allegheny County, city and regional police officers conducted warrantless searches of Black residents’ homes and cars, threatened violence against them, and held them and their children at gunpoint.

The lawsuit further alleges that many of the residents who were stopped and searched were not related to Francis, and that the few who were connected to the suspect should have been afforded Fourth Amendment protections.

Montgomery said Monday she believes the intent of the police action was not to help locate Francis, but rather to “send a message that ‘you will not mess with one of ours.’ And they didn’t give a damn who they hurt.”

In a written statement, McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko defended the police, saying they were pursuing a dangerous suspect who was accused of shooting a police officer and was on the run.

Cherepko said he “empathizes with anyone who feels their rights were violated” but that he was “disheartened” by the accusations of wrongdoing.

“I believe proper police protocol was followed in the pursuit of a fugitive who was a danger to everyone in this community,” Cherepko said. “This was not an investigative case. This was an active shooter scenario. This suspect was still in possession of a deadly weapon after already proving an unbridled willingness to use it.”

McKeesport Solicitor J. Jason Elash said the city was aware of the lawsuit but had not yet reviewed a copy of the complaint, and that he could not comment further.

“While the city does not comment on pending litigation, we feel very strongly that nothing inappropriate occurred,” Elash said in a written statement. “My legal opinion is that our police department will be vindicated in this matter.”

Thompkins, who is Black, said that her partner, a Black man, was held at gunpoint in his car by the police while he was on his way to work the day officer Athans was shot.

Thompkins said she has no “meaningful” connection to Francis.

Later that day, she said, more than 20 police officers arrived at her home, some with guns drawn, demanding to search the residence.

Thompkins said she allowed them in, but questioned whether she was properly able to consent to the search.

“How the hell can you even give consent when somebody has a gun pointed at your face?” Montgomery said.

The lawsuit maintains that Thompkins was “subject to more intensive and aggressive searches than white residents of McKeesport who had connections to Mr. Francis.”

Another plaintiff, Dixon, was pulled over on Dec. 20, 2020. He alleges that officers lacked any probable cause for the stop. An officer said that he smelled the odor of marijuana.

Dixon said he and his passengers did not fit the description for Francis as they are all older in age, with the only similarity being their race.

Dixon said that when he refused to give police his identification, one of the two officers responded with an obscenity and threatening to smash his face in, allegedly adding, “and nothing is going to happen to me.”

The two officers then searched Dixon’s vehicle without his consent, Dixon said.

Neal, who is Francis’ mother, said police prevented her from entering her house, pointed guns at her, and attempted to threaten and coerce her into letting them into her home on the basis that they “saw movement” in the house.

Neal eventually allowed police to search the house without a warrant. The search went on for several hours, she said.

On another occasion, Neal alleges that her car was stopped at a stop sign and another son, Gregory Neal Jr., was forcibly removed from the car and put into handcuffs.

Neal said Gregory Neal Jr. does not match the description of Koby Francis.

But Neal’s husband, who is white, was not pulled over, Neal said.

Montgomery said the police response to the search for Francis was disproportionate — and was unlike the response to any of the other recent shootings in McKeesport.

“If I went missing, or if I were harmed, or if I were shot, you would get a police report and a promise to follow up,” she said. “We don’t ever see that amount of police resources and that amount of police response.”

Long accused local police of failing in their mission to “protect and serve.”

“The police are here to uphold their own standard, and they are here to meet their own goals, needs and aims,” Long said.

Yousuf Lachhab Ibrahim is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh and a recent Penn State University graduate. He won a Golden Quill award for his work at the Penn State Greater Allegheny Gazette.

Originally published December 06, 2023.

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