Harper opted not to fire former Pittsburgh detective prior to road rage incident

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Former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper testified today that he could have fired former detective Bradley Walker before a road rage incident that led to the detective's conviction on misdemeanor charges and termination, and to an ongoing civil trial. But he opted not to.

In 2007, according to police internal investigations documents presented at the trial, Mr. Walker "backfisted" another detective in the mouth twice during a loud disagreement.

"I could've terminated both of them," said Mr. Harper.

"But you did not," said Josh Autry, attorney for the plaintiff, Jarret Fate.

"That is correct," said Mr. Harper.

A 2007 domestic violence allegation, in which Mr. Walker's wife said he struck her across the mouth and choked their son, led police brass to order steroid testing for the detective and to suspend him for one day.

"The police department could have terminated him for that?" Mr. Autry asked.

"Yes," said Mr. Harper.

"But the police department did not?" Mr. Autry continued.

"Yes," said Mr. Harper.

Mr. Fate, 32, of Squirrel Hill, sued Mr. Harper, Assistant Chief George Trosky and the city over the May 1, 2010, incident in which then-Detective Walker choked and punched him, and vandalized his vintage Porsche. The trial has focused on 32 prior citizen complaints against Mr. Walker, from 1993 through 2010, and the police bureau's handling of them.

Chief Trosky testified that he supervised Mr. Walker for three or four years.

"He actually went into the worse neighborhoods, went after the baddest of the bad guys," Chief Trosky said. "His objective was to get guns and drugs off the street. And he was very good at it."

Mr. Autry played for the jury a video of a deposition taken last week of Commander Catherine McNeilly.

"Chief Harper dealt with discipline in a different way than chiefs of the past," she said. "He was not the disciplinarian that some of the chiefs were."

Her husband, Robert W. McNeilly Jr., is one of the city's former chiefs, and now serves that role in Elizabeth Township. The jury is expected to watch his video deposition this afternoon.

Cmdr. McNeilly said that while Mr. Harper was chief, her serious disciplinary recommendations were undermined fewer than five times, and her less serious disciplinary recommendations were undermined fewer than 10 times. She said a commander's disciplinary recommendation is sometimes reduced by the chief, sometimes by Public Safety Director Michael Huss, and sometimes by labor arbitrators as a result of grievances.

Assistant City Solicitor Mike Kennedy, in the video deposition, emphasized the role that binding arbitration has on discipline.

"Have arbitrators put fired police officers back on the job when you've been commander?" he asked.

"Very often," Cmdr. McNeilly answered.

"What effect does that have on the morale of the brass?" he asked.

"It's castrating," she said.

Mr. Autry proposed showing the jury video shot yesterday of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl advocating the firing of Detective Frank Rende, saying it was evidence that the city could seek to terminate an officer for an incident less serious than those of which Mr. Bradley was accused. U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab declined, saying that the weekend incident involving Detective Rende, in which he was video taped charging a bar patron and apparently putting a Taser to his neck, was "not relevant" and would require "a mini-trial" all its own if introduced.

Mr. Harper resigned a month ago upon the mayor's request. The request came the day the mayor was interviewed by federal agents regarding police use of an unauthorized account at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord


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