An Allegheny County judge said an off-duty Pittsburgh Police officer who got in an altercation with a South Side man last year exercised poor judgment, but he didn't commit a crime.
Officer Paul Abel, 35, an eight-year veteran of the force, was acquitted of aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and DUI charges this morning after a non-jury trial before Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning.
Officer Abel was arrested June 28 after he shot 21-year-old Kaleb Miller in the hand. Officer Abel claimed Mr. Miller had punched him moments earlier while he was in his car at a stoplight. Officer Abel, who was off-duty during the incident, testified he had four beers and two shots that night, grabbed his service weapon from his trunk and pursued Mr. Miller.
Officer Abel drove around the block until he spotted Mr. Miller. Witnesses said the officer hit Mr. Miller on the neck with the butt of his Glock until the gun went off, grazing Mr. Miller in the hand.
Officer Abel said he was trying to make an arrest for aggravated assault and the discharge was accidental. Mr. Miller denied punching the officer, and two other witnesses said Mr. Miller looked nothing like Officer Abel's assailant.
But the case hinged on whether Officer Abel was arresting a suspect or acting in retaliation -- regardless of whether or not he had the right man. Judge Manning noted that the law allows officers discretion in the use of force, and police officers can act in their official capacity whether they're on- or off-duty.
Judge Manning called the altercation "inappropriate, imprudent and ill-advised." But, he said, "It is not the obligation of this court to police the police department."
Officer Abel declined comment after the hearing, but responded "Yes" when asked if he would like to keep his job. He has been suspended without pay since his arrest.
Elizabeth Pittinger, of the Citizen's Police Review Board, said the department should develop guidelines governing when and how officers can respond or use their weapons when they have been drinking.
She said there are multiple citizen complaints pending against Officer Abel -- including that of Mr. Miller -- and if he is reinstated to the force, the review board will hold public hearings to address his conduct.
"We might have to block off the whole month of October for hearings," she said.