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Officer allegedly draws weapon on 7-year-old girl

Deborah M. Todd / Pittsburgh Courier | September 21 2006

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.”

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