DA: Swissvale police erred in releasing man

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Swissvale police erred twice -- including once this week -- when they did not arrest a man wanted in a Pittsburgh domestic violence case, Allegheny County's top law enforcement officials said Thursday.

Allegheny County district attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said Swissvale police should have arrested Nire Brown, 18, when they hand-delivered to him in March paperwork pertaining to a protection-from-abuse hearing one week after the warrant for his arrest was issued.

He also said Swissvale police should not have released Mr. Brown when they stopped him Monday night and then released him, saying neither their officers nor Pittsburgh police were free to take him to the Allegheny County Jail.

“It doesn’‍t really matter which agency issued the paper, there’‍s an obligation to take them,” Mr. Zappala said.

Mr. Brown was arrested by the Allegheny County sheriff‘‍s office Wednesday, after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked about his release.

It’‍s unclear how often people who are wanted are released because of an inability to find someone to transport them, but officials in various parts of law enforcement said Thursday it‘‍s an issue that needs to be discussed.

“It’‍s not the first time this has happened,” Mr. Zappala said. “I think for the most part, the police agencies do a pretty good job with domestic violence cases, but this is obviously a case where the police agencies need to be reminded what we want them to to do.”

Several factors combine to create a situation in which these instances occur, said Donald Dolfi, Whitehall police chief and chairman of the executive board of the Western Pennsylvania Chiefs’‍ of Police Association.

Switching in recent years to a computerized system has sped up the time in which police can learn whether there are warrants for someone, Chief Dolfi said. But many departments’‍ staffing levels have remained the same, he said, and the drive from some of the departments to the jail can be time-consuming and difficult when only a handful of officers work each shift.

“The dilemma is out there,” he said. “What are you supposed to do?”

Henry Wiehagen, retired North Braddock police chief and chairman of the Allegheny County police union, called on Mr. Zappala to coordinate talks among departments for how to better coordinate prisoner transports.

Mr. Zappala said he would be open to having those discussions and that he also hopes to meet with Allegheny County president Judge Jeffrey A. Manning about creating a system that would allow police departments to video conference with arraignment court. If a judge arraigned someone via video at the police department and released him on his own recognizance, there would be no need for a transport.

“The court is always open to improving and doing better the job that we have to do,” Judge Manning said.

Swissvale police Chief Greg Geppert and Mayor Deneen Swartzwelder did not respond to requests for comment.

Pittsburgh public safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler said the city’‍s acting police chief and public safety director hope to have a sit-down with Chief Geppert. 

Ms. Toler said Pittsburgh officials believe, “The policy that is in place as far as prisoner transports is not something that needs to be changed. The incident in Swissvale was an incident where even though the arresting party has the responsibility of making that transport to the proper magistrate, it did not happen because they did not have anyone available at that moment.”

She said Pittsburgh police were not free to transport Mr. Brown then and, “Unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity make back-up arrangements because the prisoner was released.”

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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