Protester who lost eye from rubber bullet says officer harassed him at hearing

Alex Horell, injured during a protest last spring was charged with felony riot after his lawyer contacted the Pittsburgh police.

A protester who lost his eye last spring during a public demonstration was charged with a felony after his lawyer contacted the Pittsburgh police about a possible lawsuit regarding his injury.

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Pittsburgh City Paper reported Alex Horrell says he was hit in the eye by an unidentified object during a Black Lives Matter protest in May 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. He initially thought he was struck by a beanbag before coming to the conclusion that a rubber bullet caused his permanent injury.

“I really distinctly remember being hit, that is what I really remember,” said Horell, according to the report. He claimed he blacked out momentarily after being struck by the object. “Then I remember people shouting ‘Man down!’ and not realizing that it was about me. I remember people looking at my face coming to, like they were looking at a dead person. That is a pretty vivid memory.”

According to his account of the protests, he did not participate in looting or destruction, only a peaceful march through the city. The criminal complaint against Horell, filed on July 14, 2020, claimed he had “an active role in the riot” and moved a steel sidewalk trash can holder to catch smoke from tear gas canisters. It also alleged he made seven attempts to toss canisters back at police officers.

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The criminal complaint was only filed after Horrell’s lawyer contacted the department in regards to a lawsuit due to his client’s injury. Two months after issuing the letter, Horrell was charged with felony riot, three misdemeanors, and two summary charges. Horell and his lawyer, Fred Rabner, are speaking out against the filing officer, Sean Stumpf, and the entire department.

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

“This is how the officers behave when they think they are protecting the city,” says Rabner. The lawyer claimed Stumpf has a reputation for being overly aggressive and short tempered.

“HORRELL [sic] took an athletic stance (down and ready) as he stood waiting for smoke and OC vapor canisters to be used by Pittsburgh SRT Officers. It is obvious HORRELL was attempting to toss them back at Pittsburgh SRT Officers as he ran toward the canisters each time they were used,” reads Stumpf’s criminal complaint, according to the City Paper.

Horrell denied the claims and remembered possibly casting aside tear gas canisters to avoid inhaling the contents, as others were doing.

“They were initially just firing their weapons into the air and lobbying tear gas at us,” says Horell. “I feel like the rubber bullets were an escalation because we weren’t doing anything bad. It was, like, they were, like, ‘alright, we are done with this. Light them up.’’”

Rabner believes cell phone footage captured during the event shows police targeting Horrell with a less-than-lethal projectile and striking his eye, although Pittsburgh police policy says using less-lethal weapons are prohibited from targeting the head or neck, unless deadly force is justified.

He also stated Pittsburgh police have promised to show video footage of his client committing the actions alleged by Stumpf, but have not yet produced the video and the preliminary hearing has been rescheduled multiple times.

Rabner requested to view the footage on April 5 but prosecutors claimed it wouldn’t play because of a software malfunction. After Rabner asked for a continuance and exited the courtroom to answer a phone call, Horrell remained in the courtroom and used his cell phone to text a roommate.

Horrell says at that point, Stumpf confronted him directly.  Pittsburgh public safety spokesperson Cara Cruz said that Horrell was not arrested, but was “removed, detained, reminded of the [no phones in the courtroom] policy, and let back into the courtroom.”

His lawyer disagreed with the official account.

“When I came back, my client had been arrested. What I am told is that officer Stumpf and also Deputy Bobeck, as well as other deputies, arrested him, accusing him of something, taking a picture,” Rabner said on April 5. “I think Officer Stumpf told a sheriff that he took a picture in the courtroom.”

He continued to say everything from Horell’s charges to his detainment on April 5 from the same officer who filed the criminal complaint is “an atrocity.”

In August 2020, Horrell and his attorney shared with KDKA CBS Pittsburgh the impact of his injury and the criminal charges.

“The doctors did say it was the equivalent of a baseball bat to the face,” Horrell said. “it’s a really dark irony that a police brutality protest is met with more brutality, and it doesn’t seem to matter.”

“Alex doesn’t fit the bill of someone who was acting unruly. He fits the bill of someone who lost his eye. So the best defense here is a citywide offense and that why he’s charged,” said Rabner.

As theGrio reported, at least 100 people suffered head injuries from rubber bullets during the protests that occurred during the summer of 2020.

Physicians for Human Rights collected data using information from social media with verified photo and video proof, lawsuits, locally reported news, and other publicly available and credible sources to confirm the number.

PHR identified at least 115 people shot in the head by rubber bullets and other kinetic impact projectiles (KIPs) from May through August in various cities.

KIPs are defined by the organization as including projectiles used for crowd control worldwide, counting various bullets, baton rounds and tear gas canisters that are fired into crowds from a gun, rifle, or other launchers.

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Although they are frequently referred to as less-lethal, an injury from many KIPs can result in life-threatening injury, permanent disability, and death, PHR finds. The fired rounds commonly grouped together as rubber bullets can be made from combinations of rubber, wood, various metals, and more. They are not intended for head shots, PHR reports.

This article contains additional reporting by theGrio’s DeMicia Inman.

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