Officer in off-duty altercation returning to force

Man shot in hand during struggle, but judge clears officer

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Pittsburgh police Officer Paul Abel, who last year was involved in an off-duty altercation on the South Side that ended with him shooting a man in the hand, is going to return to his job, police Chief Nate Harper confirmed yesterday.

An arbitrator this week ruled in favor of Officer Abel, who was arrested June 28, 2008 and suspended from his job after he shot then 20-year-old Kaleb Miller.

On June 11 of this year, Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning cleared the officer of aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and DUI charges.

Chief Harper said the decision of the arbitrator, John J. Morgan, has been communicated verbally, and he expects it to be made official in coming days.

The chief called the decision "unbelievable."

"How can we maintain the trust of the public when we can't terminate someone when excessive force is used?" he said.

He said the bureau should be able to fire an officer following such an incident, even if it doesn't result in a criminal conviction.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1 President Dan O'Hara supports bringing Officer Abel back to work.

"If what he did was so grievous, then he would have been found guilty of something in the trial," Officer O'Hara said. "Although I respect the chief's opinion, this is why we have a union -- the punishment has to fit the crime."

The arbitrator's formal award will address whether Officer Abel should receive some of the pay he missed over the past year. Chief Harper said the bureau is still "fighting" not to have to pay the officer for his time off the force.

Officer Abel, 35, first joined the police bureau in 2000. Before his suspension, he was based at the Zone 3 station on the South Side.

The day of his arrest, the officer had been drinking with his wife at Town Tavern, a bar on East Carson Street. During his trial this year, he testified that he had four beers and two shots before the shooting.

Officer Abel claimed that Mr. Miller punched him while he was in his car at a stoplight, after the officer had left the bar. He grabbed his service weapon from his trunk and pursued his attacker.

Officer Abel drove around the block until he spotted Mr. Miller, whom he knew from the neighborhood. Witnesses said the officer hit Mr. Miller on the neck with the butt of his Glock and the gun went off, grazing Mr. Miller's hand.

Mr. Miller said he never hit the officer, and two witnesses said the officer's assailant looked very different.

Before the South Side incident, Officer Abel was already facing three complaints before the Citizen Police Review Board, according to Elizabeth Pittinger, the board's executive director.

"I think it's outrageous," Ms. Pittinger said about the arbitration decision. "We certainly don't train our officers to pistol whip people with their finger on the trigger when they're drunk."

She said the board would hold public hearings on the complaints against Officer Abel, including one involving a brawl in the hallway of the Allegheny County Courthouse in 2007 between the officer and his brother-in-law.

Officer O'Hara said the FOP has "no confidence" in Ms. Pittinger's impartiality, and Officer Abel deserves a second chance.

"If mistakes were made, then Officer Abel will be retrained," Officer O'Hara said. "If he makes the same mistakes, then there will be consequences."


Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1183. Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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