Can Black people walk around Churchill without being labeled ‘suspicious?’

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REBECCA SUITS, right, with her husband, David Burkett, recalls the events of Sept. 23 when she was confronted by Churchill police officer Stephen Shaulis as she took a walk through the borough. (Photos by J.L. Martello)

by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer

Can a Black woman walk around in Churchill without being accosted by police?

Rebecca Suits thought she could, until she took about an hour-long walk in the upscale borough in the late afternoon hours of Sept. 23.

A lawsuit was filed on Oct. 21 in federal court, alleging Churchill police Officer Stephen Shaulis violated Suits’ constitutional rights when he approached her as she took a walk in the borough, then followed her to nearby Wilkinsburg, and later placed her under arrest and took her to the Churchill police station.

The lawsuit, filed by Suits’ attorney, Todd Hollis, also lists Churchill Borough, for allowing an officer with Shaulis’ record to continue on the borough’s police force.

Suits, flanked by her husband, David Burkett, and godmother, Lougwin Spencer, told the media at an Oct. 21 press conference that she was simply taking a walk through the streets of Churchill, later deciding to video-chat with her husband via cell phone. A resident of Churchill called police, believing that Suits, an African American woman, may have been a threat, or more specifically, a “squatter” in the neighborhood.

Officer Shaulis arrived, and, according to Hollis, “demanded to know what her name was and why she was in the area.”

Suits, who is not from the region, “became afraid and decided she was going to end her walk,” Hollis said. She returned to her godmother’s home in nearby Wilkinsburg moments later, but, Hollis said, Officer Shaulis followed her in his police cruiser as Suits approached her godmother’s home on Collins Road.

As Suits approached the porch and the front door, Hollis said the officer asked Suits for identification, which she refused, because she said she was doing nothing wrong and had committed no crime.

“He (Officer Shaulis) says, ‘Oh, I see where this is going,’—he opens up Ms. Spencer’s door, brushes past her, grabs Ms. Suits by the arm, places her in handcuffs and throws her in his police car,” Hollis said. “What is wrong with the status of people with officers in this community? Why is it that a Black woman can’t go on a normal walk as any other person would or could?”

Suits was taken to the Churchill police station, but ultimately was not charged with any crime. She later went to Forbes Hospital for bruising and inflammation.

Officer Shaulis is no stranger to controversy. In 2015, as a school resource officer for Woodland Hills High School, he was caught on video shocking a student with a Taser. And in April 2017, he was accused of using excessive force when he knocked out a student’s tooth. Hollis filed a lawsuit on behalf of students in the Woodland Hills School District alleging excessive force by its officers and employees against students. The case was settled in 2018 for $500,000.

Suits, who has addresses in Idaho, Georgia and Arkansas, was in the area to provide care for Spencer. Suits’ husband, Burkett, was in Georgia listening to most of the events unfold as the cell phone connection between he and Suits was still working.

“I was just out taking a walk,” Suits told reporters at the press conference. “I thought to myself, ‘why shouldn’t I be able to take a walk? What’s wrong with it? Is it because of where I am and the color of my skin?’”

Suits said the September incident has “changed my worldview. I’ve never, ever had an encounter with police in my life—being arrested, wanted, anything—and to have this type of encounter, it changes the way I look at things.”

“I don’t ever want to see Stephen Shaulis working as a police officer or in any other law enforcement capacity ever again,” Hollis said. “This is a situation where money is not enough—the fact that he could walk into an elderly woman’s home and…open up their door and enter their house as if he had a right to do so and would suffer no consequences…and essentially he has not.”

Hollis said with all the accusations levied against Officer Shaulis over the years, “he has not come before a single judge…he still works as a police officer and he has not lost $1. So what would be his motivation to stop this kind of conduct if he suffers no consequences?”

Suits, who has a 29-year-old son, told reporters that as she was in the back of the Churchill police cruiser, “I feared, ‘would I ever see my child again? Would I ever see my mom and my husband again?’”

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