A Homewood family says the city’s SWAT team raided the wrong house looking for a shooting suspect, caused extensive damage and terrorized children in the home before a sergeant admitted the team shouldn’t have broken in.
In a federal civil rights suit filed Wednesday, Kelly Angell said the SWAT team used cellphone ping information provided by Monroeville police in searching for the shooter but that the suspect had no connection to her or her family and had never been in their Paulson Avenue home.
The suit names the city of Pittsburgh, SWAT officer Stephen Mescan, Monroeville Detective James Monkelis and a variety of other police officers from both agencies identified as John Does.
The plaintiffs are Angell, her five daughters and Derone Lewis.
She said they were home at 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 22 when the SWAT team rolled up in their armored vehicle, shot flash-bangs into the house and swarmed inside shouting for the shooter, identified as Daronte Brown. Angell said the cops used battering rams to smash doors and shatter windows.
She said Brown wasn’t there and never had been.
Two hours earlier, Monkelis had sworn out a warrant for Brown following a shooting at a Monroeville hotel the day before. The warrant said he was the “owner, occupant or possessor” of the Paulson Avenue address. Monkelis said that because of the danger Brown posed, Monroeville police relied on active cellphone emergency pings to find him.
Monkelis said Brown’s phone was active at the house, but the lawsuit says emergency pings aren’t accurate. The triangulation technology from cell towers provides a general vicinity for a phone signal but can’t place that signal inside a particular building.
But based on the pings, Monkelis asked the city SWAT team for help, and 20 cops in battle gear stormed the Angell house. She said she ran down the stairs and heard “bombs” going off and glass breaking. The bombs were flash-bangs, the suit says. The raid was terrifying for her children, she said, particularly one daughter who is autistic and began screaming at the noise.
At one point, the police accosted Lewis, dragged him outside, handcuffed him, punched him in the face and then grabbed his hair to pull his head back so they could see his face, according to the suit. Lewis stands 6-3, weighs 250 pounds and has dark skin. The suit says Brown is short, thin and light-skinned.
“The officers knew immediately that Mr. Lewis was not Brown,” the complaint says. “Nevertheless, the officers kept him in handcuffs and separated him from the rest of the family for at least an hour and a half.”
One of Angell’s daughters tried to record the raid on a phone, but the suit says one of the SWAT cops snatched it from her and didn’t return it until that evening.
Angell said the police herded her family outside. It was 36 degrees and none were dressed for the cold. The children were held in the SWAT truck or an ambulance, but Angell and Lewis had to stay outside, dressed in shorts.
The SWAT team spent more than three hours searching the property. At one point a cop showed Angell a picture of Brown. She said she’d never seen him before.
One officer told Angell that police knew her daughters were hiding Brown in the house, the suit says, and that the phone pings had put him in a specific room. Monkelis also showed Angell a photo of Brown and told her police knew he was in the house because they had seen him in one of the bedrooms. The suit says those claims were false and Brown was never there.
One officer told the family that if they didn’t give Brown up, the SWAT team would shoot tear gas into the house, which they then did, according to the suit.
When police eventually let Angell and Lewis back inside, Angell said she saw officers on her porch laughing and she became irate. A sergeant showed up and “acknowledged that the SWAT team should not have broken into the house. He stated that the SWAT team decided to break into the house based on a cellphone ping ‘in the vicinity,’” the suit says.
Monkelis said someone would fix the doors and windows the next day, but no one did, according to the suit.
The Red Cross put the children up in a hotel. When Angell called Monroeville police to ask about fixing the damage, she said cops referred her to the city of Pittsburgh. The city’s law department told her the city would make the repairs after multiple estimates had been submitted.
Angell said the family covered some of the windows with cardboard. The windows on the third floor still haven’t been fixed, she said.
The suit raises Fourth Amendment violations of unlawful entry, excessive force, unlawful detention and related counts and is asking for compensatory and punitive damages.
The city doesn’t comment on pending litigation.