Questions raised over Pittsburgh police oral exam board

Makeup of panel that evaluates recruits criticized as 'more of the same'

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  • Only 18 months after Pittsburgh police officials unwittingly allowed a convicted felon to help evaluate potential recruits, a new police-only panel of interviewers contains several officers with controversial pasts and one currently under internal investigation.

    Several advocates and a city councilwoman expressed concern over certain officers evaluating potential recruits who could enter the academy next year to bulk up the roughly 850-member police bureau.

    "I think that any controversial person should not be considered right now -- especially right now with the continuing [federal] investigation into the bureau," said Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, who chairs the public safety committee.

    According to an internal memo dated Friday and obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, among the 56 full-time evaluators and alternates who were chosen to sit on 10 three-member panels hearing oral exams later this month are:

    Cmdr. Eric Holmes, who is under internal scrutiny over holding a full-time second job at the same time he worked as a sergeant.

    Officer Edward Cunningham, whose use of force cost the city $155,000 in a court settlement after being accused of wrongly using a Taser on a Mt. Lebanon man after a 2008 traffic stop on the South Side.

    Lt. Charles Rodriguez, whose promotion was controversial because of a domestic violence charge by his daughter that later was dropped.

    Sgt. Carol Ehlinger, who has been the subject of two use-of-force allegations by fellow officers claiming she choked them and in which the city paid more than $500,000, most of it in legal fees.

    Officer David Sisak, who is facing a second civil trial in connection with a high-profile case in which he and his partners are accused of beating Jordan Miles in Homewood. He was not prosecuted criminally.

    "It sounds to me that this is more of the same with the police bureau continuing to be so ham-handed and not recognize the problems they have," said Jeanne Clark, president of the Squirrel Hill chapter of the National Organization for Women.

    Federal prosecutors have indicted former police Chief Nate Harper on several charges, including one count that he conspired to divert money from the city into secret accounts, and have called various police employees in to testify before a grand jury.

    The oral exams are one of a series of tests used to determine whether applicants are fitting candidates to become officers.

    Ms. Kail-Smith said she was first made aware Thursday that some of the police evaluators had controversial backgrounds by a reporter who sought comment about the situation. She said she quickly emailed public safety director Michael Huss, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and acting police Chief Regina McDonald, seeking an explanation for how the panelists were chosen.

    "In my [email] I said, 'Are you suggesting that we could not find a few folks to serve without any controversy circulating around them currently?' " Ms. Kail-Smith said. "Unless they're going to tell me there's a certain set of criteria that only these people met, I see no excuse for it."

    Ms. Kail-Smith said she asked city leaders to take action but declined to elaborate or release her email.

    Mr. Huss declined comment. The officers in question had no comment or did not return messages.

    Two years ago, though, Mr. Huss had strong words after the discovery that a convicted felon still on probation spent two days interviewing potential recruits during the oral boards process.

    Dianne Malrey, a cousin of assistant Chief Maurita Bryant, had pleaded guilty of carrying a firearm without a license and questioned 17 applicants during the oral interview portion of the civil service exam. Police said she shot three times at a woman.

    The discovery that Ms. Malrey was interviewing prospective officers -- while wearing an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet -- as part of an effort to involve civilians in the process led to the program's end.

    At the time, Mr. Huss said, "We can't have someone evaluating a future officer when their character is in question."

    Ms. Kail-Smith said, "The last time we talked about this we said there should be a set criteria for people serving on the board and one of those things should be people are not currently involved in any investigation or have any kind of criminal background."

    Chief McDonald defended the examiners who were chosen and emphasized that the bureau sought input from multiple supervisors while evaluating candidates.

    "Everybody on that list we feel is hard-working, professional," she said. "There is no reason they shouldn't be on the list."

    Acting assistant Chief Thomas Stangrecki sent a bureauwide message on April 24 seeking volunteers to participate as evaluators in the oral portion of exams given to potential recruits.

    Eligible officers must have at least seven years with the Pittsburgh Police Bureau and be in good standing. They volunteered by sending a brief memo to their supervisors stating their interest.

    Chief McDonald defined "good standing" as "someone who performs professionally, performs well, does their job, they're not being monitored under discipline."

    The bureau fell short the first time it requested volunteers, so it sent additional requests. A handful were rejected either because they hadn't served on the force long enough or because they were involved in "personnel issues" Chief McDonald declined to describe.

    The final list of panelists was vetted by E.B. Jacobs LLC, a State College-based consulting service hired by the city for $77,000 to evaluate the department's hiring process. Chief McDonald said the company suggested only that the bureau rearrange two men on the panels so that the panels would be more diverse.

    No one from E.B. Jacobs could be reached Thursday.

    Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, questioned why the police bureau could not find evaluators who lacked any hint of controversy among the hundreds of officers.

    "You have the best and the brightest cops out there. You have hundreds of them, and anyone under that taint should be moved aside until they're cleared," Ms. Pittinger said.

    "I think that they should have a policy that precludes anyone participating in this process that is currently under investigation or named in a civil lawsuit against the city for on-duty conduct."

    Chief McDonald defended the selection of Cmdr. Holmes, who has drawn scrutiny not only for holding down a second full-time job as interim police chief for Slippery Rock University in 2007-08 but for organizing a private security business along with Mr. Harper.

    "With Eric Holmes, we haven't seen any proof of wrongdoing," Chief McDonald said. She said her understanding is that "his job with Slippery Rock was approved by Chief Harper and there's no indication that he was doing either job on each other's time."

    The chief defended her decision to select people who had been sued in federal court by emphasizing that an accusation is not the same as guilt.

    "Just because they're named in civil suits doesn't mean they're guilty of anything. We have individuals suing the city regularly. We can't assume they're guilty just because someone's filing a suit," the chief said.

    However, Ms. Pittinger had a different perspective.

    "If you say it's OK to smack a subordinate, regardless of any lawsuit, that person should be fired. I mean who goes to work and punches people and chokes people and stays on the job?" Ms. Pittinger said.

    As for Officer Sisak, she said, "I think that individual remains under a high degree of scrutiny. He's a respondent in a federal civil lawsuit in a very highly controversial incident alleging excessive use of force. Until that's clear he should not be evaluating people."

    Of the suggestion by citizens' groups and Ms. Kail-Smith that perhaps the mere prospect of impropriety should be enough to disqualify someone, the chief said, "I'm not responding to people's comments from the outside."

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    Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1962 or on Twitter @jsilverpg. Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil.


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