Pittsburgh's mayor wants to develop a policy to discipline police officers who lose civil cases

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In the wake of a split verdict in the civil case filed by Jordan Miles against three police officers, Mayor Bill Peduto said Tuesday he wants to create a policy to discipline officers who are found in the wrong in civil trials and said that he would not rule out discipline for the two officers who remain with the city.

“There should be something in place involving civil trials that have allegations or decision by a jury that said an officer was at fault,” he said.

But the policy and the prospect of pursuing disciplinary measures four years after the fact drew skepticism in some corners, including from the city’s own solicitor, Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge.

“I don’t think it’s prudent to discipline police officers based on a civil jury verdict,” she said, citing the months — or even years — it can take for a civil case to work itself out. “It’s just not that proper to hold the discipline until a civil jury comes back.”

On Monday, a jury in U.S. District Court found that former Pittsburgh police Officer Richard Ewing, and Pittsburgh officers Michael Saldutte and David Sisak, falsely arrested Mr. Miles in 2010, but did not use excessive force. He was awarded more than $119,000 in the case.

Mr. Miles alleged police brutality and was beaten in the encounter after he ran from the plainclothes police officers who he claimed did not identify themselves as law enforcement.

While the case may inspire policy changes under the Peduto administration, U.S. attorney David Hickton said he won’t revisit a 2011 decision to close a criminal probe of the arrest.

Federal authorities investigated the incident in 2011 and did not find sufficient information to charge the officers.

“The case was fully and exhaustively investigated,” Mr. Hickton said. “The arrest of Jordan Miles was a troubling and divisive event for the entire community. The jury has spoken. It’s time to heal. We must continue to work towards greater trust and cooperation between community and police in the interests of safety for all.”

Mr. Miles’ attorney, Joel Sansone, said Tuesday that the trial produced “allegations that the federal prosecutors have an obligation to look into.”

Mr. Peduto has said that part of the way to rebuild trust is to establish stronger disciplinary and accountability measures for police officers, which he plans to fight for when the city heads to the table this year to negotiate a new contract with the police union — the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 1. The contract sets the rules for how and when rank-and-file officers can be disciplined.

Beth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, backed Mr. Peduto’s efforts to link discipline to civil trial outcomes. When a jury finds officers were in the wrong — but the city does nothing — it undermines public confidence.

“They were found to have committed a false arrest. That’s a pretty serious violation of a citizen’s civil rights,” she said. “So how can they ignore that?”

Bryan Campbell, an attorney who works for the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 1, and who represented Officer Saldutte at trial, said Mr. Peduto’s quest for a consistent policy is unlikely to bring any change. That’s because under the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, when someone sues a local government employee, the municipality has to decide promptly whether or not to indemnify them. Indemnification means paying for their court costs and any settlement or verdict.

The municipality can only refuse to indemnify the employee if it investigates and finds malice, willful misconduct or crime. If it finds one of those circumstances, it can seek to discipline the employee right away.

If the municipality decides to indemnify the employee — as Pittsburgh did for all three officers accused in Mr. Miles’ lawsuit — it’s unlikely that it would be able to impose discipline following any verdict. “You can’t change your mind when the verdict comes in,” said Mr. Campbell.

If the city indemnified an employee, but then tried to impose discipline after an unfavorable verdict, arbitrators would likely see the hypocrisy and overturn it, Mr. Campbell said.

But Ms. Pittinger believes the city has been “too generous” in who it chooses to indemnify. She believes that some officers should be on the hook when they’re sued for acting outside the scope of what they’ve been trained to do. And holding them personally responsible for their actions could inspire more discipline among the ranks, she said.

“They can’t just act carte blanche and say ‘Oh well, the city will back me up,’” she said.

Ms. Sanchez-Ridge says she’s exploring ways for the city to be more selective about which city employees it indemnifies. But what she’s found, so far, is that her hands may be tied by case law.

“The courts are pretty clear that if a police officer is acting within the color of the state, that we must indemnify … it’s not something that I’d like to do, but it is the case law,” she said.


Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter: @richelord. First Published April 1, 2014 1:50 PM


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