Expert testifies on behalf of Whitaker cop's use of force

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A Pittsburgh police officer recognized as an expert in use of force and police tactics testified Monday that a Whitaker police officer who two years ago broke out the window of a motorist who had just fled a traffic stop acted reasonably.

“I believe his actions on that night are reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances,” said Robert Swartzwelder, who works patrol in Pittsburgh’s Zone 2 station.

“What he did was a reasonable job,” he continued. “It’s not called perfect after the fact.”

Mr. Swartzwelder was hired by Whitaker officer William Davis and his defense attorney to testify at the man’s criminal trial this week before Common Pleas Judge Philip A. Ignelzi. Officer Davis is charged with false swearing, criminal attempt to commit extortion, perjury and official oppression stemming from two incidents during the summer of 2012.

In one case, the prosecution is alleging that Officer Davis lied on an affidavit of probable cause for a search warrant he obtained in a drug investigation.

In the other, about which Mr. Swartzwelder testified, Officer Davis was working in an unmarked car in plainclothes the evening of June 27, when he attempted to pull over a white BMW on Route 837 just past the Rankin Bridge.

The driver of the vehicle, Danielle Stillwell-Newlon, was unsure if the person attempting to pull her over was really a police officer so she drove off and called 911, planning to pull over in the McDonald’s parking lot near Kennywood. However, Officer Davis, who had no information about the driver of the vehicle, proceeded to chase it for felony fleeing and eluding.

When Ms. Stillwell-Newlon got stuck in traffic, Officer Davis quickly approached her car, commanding her to unlock her doors and roll down her window. By all accounts, she did not comply quickly enough, and he used his service weapon to break out the driver’s side window, damaging his gun in the process.

The woman was taken into custody, and at the Whitaker police station, she explained why she drove off. The two parties agreed that she would pay for the repairs for Officer Davis’ gun and fill out a statement about what happened, and in exchange, no charges would be filed against her.

However, Ms. Stillwell-Newlon later changed her mind and went to the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office to complain about Officer Davis’ actions, and he was later charged.

Mr. Swartzwelder, who was paid $1,000 to review the case, said it’s easy to question Officer Davis’ actions after the fact — that it was a young woman with no criminal record of any kind who was pulled over. But at the time, “He has no idea who this person is,” he said. “He’s allowed and permitted to use force to take the actor into custody.”

By breaking out her window, Officer Davis was giving himself a way to see into the car to ensure everyone’s safety, Mr. Swartzwelder said.

“What he did was reasonable.”

As for Officer Davis making the deal with the woman to not charge her, Mr. Swartzwelder said that “happens every day. It’s happening right now somewhere in this county.”

Also testifying Monday was Whitaker police Chief John Vargo, who told the jury that Officer Davis is a “10” as an officer in his department, and that the charges against him are “ridiculous.”

“I can’t wait to get him back.”


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard.

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