Attorneys for the family of a former Washington County man who was killed by police in Allegheny County almost two years ago filed a lawsuit Monday on behalf of his family members, alleging officers engaged in an “objectively unreasonable” use of force during a confrontation that had started as an alleged minor infraction.
Allegheny County Port Authority police officers shot Bruce Kelley Jr., 37, Jan. 31, 2016, in Wilkinsburg, after he reportedly slashed at a K-9 officer with a knife during a confrontation with police.
“It is our position that the police, they created this situation,” said Noah Geary, an attorney who represents Kelley’s mother, Johnnie Mae Kelley, and his sister, Calisia Kelley, both of Washington. “Unnecessarily, they created it, they escalated it, and they bungled the situation.”
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh, names the Allegheny County Port Authority police, Sgt. Brian O’Malley, Officer Dominic Rivotti, Chief Matthew Porter, three other “John Doe” members of the department – two officers and one supervisor – and the county itself as defendants.
The Allegheny County Port Authority declined comment. Spokesman Adam Brandolph said officials haven’t yet been served with the lawsuit.
The 11-page civil complaint prepared by Geary and co-counsel Adam Bishop states Bruce Kelley Jr. and his father were spending time in a gazebo in Linear Park when two officers approached them and accused them of open container violations, “at most, a summary offense,” according to the lawsuit.
As the officers interacted with Bruce Kelley Sr., 62, his son reportedly hugged the gazebo – “an obvious passive behavior,” according to his family’s complaint – before police claim the elder Kelley punched an unnamed female officer in the face, a claim disputed in the lawsuit.
During the exchange taking place between his father and police, Kelley Jr. reportedly left the gazebo and walked away from the officers. At some point, Kelley drew a knife – which he, being homeless, carried for protection, according to the lawsuit – but didn’t threaten to use it on the officers.
Officers, who, at some point, called for backup, cornered Kelley Jr. in front of a house on nearby Whitney Avenue. The K-9 unit, which consisted of O’Malley, Rivotti and a German shepherd, also arrived. They joined the officers who were reportedly telling Kelley with guns drawn to drop the knife.
O’Malley and Rivotti didn’t attempt to de-escalate the situation, according to Kelley’s family’s lawyers. Instead, O’Malley reportedly threatened to sic the dog on Kelley if he didn’t drop the knife. The lawsuit states Kelley said he’d stab the dog to protect himself if that happened.
O’Malley reportedly released the dog, which bit Kelley, who slashed at him with the knife.
The lawsuit notes the dog bit the wrong arm, biting Kelley’s left arm when he had the knife in his right hand.
“Had the dog been properly trained, it would have bit Kelley’s right arm,” the lawsuit states.
At that point, O’Malley and Rivotti shot Kelley seven times, including twice in the back, and killed him, according to the lawsuit. Kelley was pronounced dead at the scene. The canine, Aren, later died at a veterinary hospital.
Along with excessive force on the part of the officers, the lawsuit also alleges the county, Porter, the port authority, its police department and the unidentified supervisor “had a practice and custom of acquiescing in their officers’ use of excessive force,” failed to supervise and discipline officers who used excessive force and failed to adequately train officers in that area.
“No. 1, Bruce’s life is more important than the dog,” Geary said. “No. 2, it’s our position that the dog is not dead because of Bruce Kelley. The dog is dead because the officers terribly mishandled the situation.”