The Frederick County branch of the NAACP has raised concerns about a Frederick police chief finalist’s involvement in and characterization of a protest in Pittsburgh last summer.
Commander Jason Lando of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police is one of two finalists for the top position at the Frederick Police Department. He’s also one of numerous Pittsburgh city and police officials named in a federal lawsuit launched by eight citizens following a June 1 protest in Pittsburgh, according to court records.
A search committee comprised of residents narrowed down 35 applicants for Frederick’s next chief to seven, then a committee of the city’s leadership team trimmed the list down further. In December, Lando and police Chief Cleveland Spruill, of Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, were named as the two finalists. Since then, a background check has been underway. Frederick Mayor Michael O’Connor is expected to make a recommendation to the Board of Aldermen sometime this month.
The lawsuit’s allegations include accusing various police officers of attacking peaceful protesters with tear gas and “less lethal” munitions such as rubber bullets and a flashbang grenade, according to the lawsuit. A flashbang emits a flash of light and loud noise.
The civil case is ongoing and has not reached a conclusion.
Frederick County NAACP President Willie Mahone said he and members learned of the suit while researching finalists for the Frederick police chief. They found online news articles mentioning the protest and Lando, prompting the NAACP to contact Lando to ask for an explanation.
The NAACP also sent a letter to O’Connor and the Board of Aldermen dated Feb. 5 outlining its concerns. The NAACP sent a copy of this letter to the News-Post.
“We think that information regarding Commander Lando’s involvement and description of the police response to the protest is important information that should be considered in his bid to become our new Police Chief,” the letter reads.
Protesters gathered that day in Pittsburgh to rally against racism and police brutality, spurred by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in May, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Lando, commander of the narcotics and vice unit, allegedly “ordered, authorized, participated in, and/or acquiesced in the violations of Plaintiffs’ rights” during the June protest, the lawsuit states. The lawsuit did not specifically describe Lando’s actions.
Lando told the News-Post he was not part of the tactical decision-making process that day, but had been working with detectives behind the scenes. He said the protest was largely peaceful.
Mahone said the lawsuit and investigations launched by the Pittsburgh Office of Municipal Investigations, the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board and the Pittsburgh NAACP raises questions that should be answered.
“Of course we are concerned, but I think the general community would be equally concerned,” Mahone said.
Mahone told the News-Post the Frederick NAACP was troubled by a particular quote Lando gave to the media when describing what he witnessed at the June protest. Lando reportedly told the Tribune-Review police used smoke — not tear gas — to dispel a group of people who threw rocks and smashed windows. This statement appeared to contradict what other Pittsburgh police officials said.
Lando told the News-Post when he offered that quote to local media in June describing what he’d seen, he hadn’t been aware tear gas was used.
“At no time did I ever witness gas being used. I learned later that night during a press conference that some of the crowd-control teams did use gas in other parts of the neighborhood after crowds refused to disperse. I was not present in those areas so I could not speak to what occurred,” Lando wrote in his response to the Frederick NAACP’s query. The NAACP forwarded a copy of Lando’s responses to the News-Post.
Tim Stevens, a past president of the Pittsburgh NAACP, has known Lando for years and most recently worked with Pittsburgh police in his current capacity as chairman and founder of the Black Political Empowerment Project. Stevens said he accepts Lando’s account of what occurred June 1.
“I think he’s probably one of the most trustworthy police officers I have ever met,” Stevens told the News-Post.
The lawsuit and media coverage was not news to Frederick’s mayor. The city is working with the International Association of Chiefs of Police to gather background information on the chief candidates.
“The goal is to make sure no stone is left unturned,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor and Mahone acknowledged the lawsuit is open and investigations are ongoing.
“There are no findings yet,” O’Connor said.
The mayor expressed confidence in the city’s background check process, stating information gathered would be considered before he offered his pick to the Board of Aldermen.
That is Mahone’s hope, as well.
“I really want to see the mayor take this into consideration,” Mahone said. He did not call the allegations against Lando disqualifying, but characterized them as relevant to the chief selection process.
On Tuesday, Mahone said Lando had responded to the NAACP’s queries in a timely manner via email, though he didn’t feel Lando had adequately addressed their question about the smoke, not gas quote. The NAACP also reached out to Lando and Spruill to pose other questions regarding policing.
O’Connor plans to make his recommendation for chief to the Board of Aldermen shortly after the background check process is complete. As he understands it, the report he’s waiting for is “sitting at the goal line.”
“When I have that report, we will move as quickly as we can,” O’Connor said.