Tougher background checks urged for Allegheny County police academy

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When Eric Williams applied to the Allegheny County police training academy earlier this summer, he passed the background check and was accepted for the program.

But when the 21-year-old Wilkinsburg man applied separately for a gun license, the Allegheny County sheriff's office said it found that he had a juvenile record that prohibited him from carrying a gun, and Allegheny County police removed him from their training program.

Mr. Williams’ story is not the only of its kind. About 12 years ago, a man graduated from the academy and his criminal record was discovered when he later applied for a job elsewhere, said Inspector Wayne Gaffron, training academy director.

The Allegheny County police training academy is unlike some others in that cadets who are accepted for the program are not guaranteed jobs with the police force, only training opportunities. Because they are not applying for employment, Inspector Gaffron said, state law prohibits him from running all of the background checks possible.

“I don't necessarily agree with that, but we’re kind of handcuffed as far as checking on criminal histories,” Inspector Gaffron said. “It's been an ongoing discussion with the academy directors across the state.”

Had Mr. Williams' record not been caught, he would have had access to a gun, despite the fact the law probably would have prohibited that. It's a notion that worries some in law enforcement and that they said they'd like to see change.

The Municipal Police Officers' Education and Training Commission, which oversees police officer training in the state, “recognizes that the current process is not perfect. They are working to analyze the shortcomings and make changes where appropriate,” said Trooper Adam Reed, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Police and MPOETC.

Mr. Williams said he applied to the county police training academy because he “always wanted to go into policing.”

“That's the only career that I feel gives an opportunity to have something different on a daily basis and to ... save a life,” he said.

He declined to comment on other aspects of his experience with the academy or his application, saying he did not wish to talk while a criminal case was pending against him.

Graduating from the Allegheny County police training academy is often a prerequisite for applying to become an officer at the county's suburban police departments, Inspector Gaffron said.

When Mr. Williams applied to the training academy, he completed a five-page application that asked, among other things, whether he had ever been adjudicated delinquent for any in a list of crimes that prohibit someone from legally using a gun, including possession of a firearm by a minor.

Had he responded yes, Allegheny County Police Superintendent Charles Moffatt said, he would not have been accepted to the academy.

But he was accepted and began classes the week of July 7.

Along with his application, Mr. Williams also went to the Pennsylvania State Police website and paid to have a background check, which came back clean.

“We think it was a legitimate letter,” Superintendent Moffatt said.

The check offered on the state police site “is limited in scope,” Trooper Reed said, noting that other checks will pull material from more databases.

The same week the academy began, Mr. Williams submitted to the Allegheny County Sheriff's Office a license to carry a gun. That was not required for his training academy application.

“This is something that he did on his own, which I'm glad he did in hindsight,” Inspector Gaffron said.

According to a criminal complaint, Mr. Williams indicated on his application that he had not been convicted of any crimes that would prohibit him from owning a gun. A list of those crimes is included on the application.

The sheriff's office ran a check of him using the Pennsylvania Instant Check System, which is also run by the state police and screens more databases than its online background check. The PICS search revealed that Mr. Williams was arrested in 2009, when he was a juvenile, and found delinquent of three crimes, including possessing a firearm as a minor, according to the affidavit. The sheriff's office charged him with unsworn falsification and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for Oct. 21.

County police said Mr. Williams was removed from the training academy July 30 and thus had not been in the program long enough to begin the portion that focuses on gun training.

Inspector Gaffron said he and Superintendent Moffatt are researching whether they might be able to legally require future applicants to apply for a license to carry a gun, so that they will go through the more rigorous background check when the sheriff's office screens them.

“I knew there was a problem somewhere in the process,” Superintendent Moffatt said, "and we're taking steps to correct it."

Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil.


Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil.

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