Pittsburgh police lawsuit settlements pile up

City council approved a $115,000 payment Tuesday to settle a lawsuit alleging a city police officer fabricated a case for charges, later dismissed, that landed a woman in jail for five days.

The settlement approved for Christine Condarcure of North Apollo joins two other six-figure judgments this year against the city related to allegations of excessive force or misconduct by police, and a mounting pile of cash paid out over the past four years.

“We are pleased we were able to amicably resolve the case. The whole experience was an ordeal for Ms. Condarcure,” said her attorney, Tim O’Brien. “The settlement is a recognition to some degree of her rights to be free of filing criminal charges based on information that was not true. … There has to be — and currently there isn’t — a zero-tolerance policy for dishonesty and untruthfulness when it comes to the police carrying out their duties.”

Ms. Condarcure filed a complaint with the city’s Office of Municipal Investigations after her son Taylor Condarcure suffered a broken bone in his face and other injuries during a February 2010 arrest by Officer David Honick, who was working a private security detail at Saddle Ridge, a nightclub in Station Square. Mr. Condarcure was charged with aggravated assault, resisting arrest and defiant trespass, though he was later acquitted of all charges and filed his own lawsuit against the city, which is still pending.

At her son’s preliminary hearing several months later, Ms. Condarcure was charged with witness intimidation and simple assault by Officer Anthony Scarpine, who alleged she elbowed and argued with a witness on her way into the courtroom and threatened the officer.

However, an OMI investigation, based on video footage, revealed that Officer Scarpine couldn’t have seen much of what he wrote in his affidavit of probable cause. A complaint of conduct unbecoming was sustained against Officer Scarpine by OMI.

“Officer Honick testified that it was at his behest that Officer Scarpine filed the charges that were filed,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Our belief is that the filing of these charges was done in retaliation for Ms. Condarcure filing the complaint with OMI in the first place.”

In her lawsuit, Ms. Condarcure alleged that as she was being arrested, she heard Officer Honick insult her and say Officer Scarpine should make the arrest because it would “look better.”

Both officers Scarpine and Honick have been the subject of prior complaints.

Officer Scarpine was suspended in November 2010 when he and since-retired Officer Kenneth Simon were charged in what prosecutors called a wrongful drug arrest. A district judge dismissed charges against Officer Scarpine in that case.

City council shelled out $10,000 in 2012 to settle an excessive force complaint against Officer Honick and Officer Jason Moss related to a 2006 traffic stop. Officer Honick and his wife were both charged with assault in 2011 in what police called a domestic violence incident, though the charges against both were later withdrawn.

Attempts to reach Bryan Campbell, the lawyer for the Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police, were unsuccessful Tuesday afternoon. A request for comment from Officers Scarpine and Honick, sent to Sonya Toler, spokeswoman for the city’s Public Safety Department, was declined by Ms. Toler.

According to police annual reports from 2011 and 2012, the city paid out a total of $381,764 in settlements, judgments and attorneys fees for lawsuits related to excessive force, civil rights violations, false arrest, racial profiling or harassment. The department’s report for 2013 is not yet finished, though city council records show it approved a $100,000 settlement last year for Jeff Collins of Ross, who alleged he was beaten and kicked by plainclothes officers after a traffic stop.

This year, a jury awarded Jordan Miles $119,000 in March for false arrest, though it rejected the excessive force claim that stemmed from his 2006 arrest in Homewood by three plainclothes officers on charges that were later dropped. Just last week, another jury awarded Anthony Kenney $105,000 in damages, finding police used excessive force during his 2010 arrest.

Not including pending cases like Taylor Condarcure’s and suits filed over the police’s handling of the G-20 summit in 2009, some of which where settled through an insurance carrier, the city will have spent about $820,764 so far this year in settlements and judgments related to alleged police misconduct over the past four years.

City Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, who heads the council’s finance and law committee, said the payments have “definitely been a concern.”

“One of the issues is whether these cases are settled or whether they’re pushed to trial,” she said, adding the law department under former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Solicitor Daniel Regan looked at data and decided settling most cases was more cost-effective. “You have no idea how much a jury is going to pay out. They can look at the city coffers like a blank check.”

Also part of the problem, Ms. Rudiak said, is the “conduct of a very small number of our officers.”

“Even if the city feels they have done something wrong, any disciplinary actions are decided by an arbitration board,” she said. “The cumulative effect of these settlements is something city council is concerned about, if certain officers are involved in multiple cases.”

Councilman Ricky Burgess, who introduced legislation three years ago requiring the department to add information on lawsuits and settlements to its annual report, repeated his assertion that the police department faces a “crisis in community confidence.”

“Certainly, the more litigation, the more potential for community problems,” he said. “We have to increase the community confidence. The residents must want to collaborate with the police.”

Mr. O’Brien, 65, who has taken part in cases involving the city police for nearly three decades, said the growing number of suits and settlements boils down to an erosion of leadership and discipline in the years since the department came out from under a federal consent decree in 2005.

“I probably represented more people in police misconduct cases than any other attorney in this geographical area,” he said. “If you were to compare lawsuits filed in the last couple of years compared to the numbers filed at the end of the fifth year of the consent decree, you would see a very significant difference. … I attribute the increase to the failure of leadership to fully ensure that police are properly trained, regulated and disciplined.”

Former Chief Nate Harper pleaded guilty last year to failing to file tax returns for four years and diverting more than $70,000 in public funds into an unauthorized credit union accounts, including nearly $32,000 he spent on himself.

“We all declare how important our constitutional rights are,” he added. “We hear a lot of clamoring about that. What people may not recognize or realize is that our constitutional rights are most imperiled on a day-to-day basis in the interactions with police.”

Mayor Bill Peduto has repeatedly acknowledged the divide between the community and the police and has said he is working to have a permanent chief in place sometime after Labor Day, though he said he will not be rushed into making a hire. Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge, the city’s solicitor, said in an interview last month that one of her attorneys is making the rounds to educate officers on civil rights issues.

Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909. Twitter: @rczullo.

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