Payouts increase for lawsuits that allege police misconduct
January 23, 2011 5:00 AM
Celeste Taylor -- Says she doesn't believe misconduct cases have increased significantly in recent years, "but that's not to say what existed previously wasn't already bad."
Timothy P. O'Brien -- Says he believes the vigilance of police brass and the public has waned in recent years creating, conditions for more misconduct cases.
By Joe Smydo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Settlements in police misconduct cases have cost the city of Pittsburgh about $300,000 in the past 13 months, and another settlement for $150,000 is pending -- an uptick in payouts that has some officials and lawyers urging a review of police department procedures, especially those pertaining to officers' off-duty activities.
The city settled one federal misconduct lawsuit in 2008 and one in 2009.
Last year, however, the city settled four misconduct suits, two of them involving officers who were off-duty or moonlighting when the incidents occurred. So far this year, City Council has taken up two more settlements, both involving off-duty officers.
Because the financially strapped city is self-insured, payouts come from the $450 million operating budget.
"My hope is that the city takes more control over officers' behavior, when they are on the clock and off the clock," said Irwin lawyer Gerald O'Brien, who is seeking a $150,000 settlement for Leonard Hamler of Houston, Texas.
Mr. Hamler, a dump-truck driver on the Port Authority tunnel project, claimed that Officer Garrett Brown -- in uniform but off duty and driving a personal vehicle -- passed him and cut him off on a Downtown street about 2:30 a.m. Jan. 19, 2008. Mr. Hamler said Mr. Brown, "irate and acting erratically," ordered him out of the dump truck and assaulted him, aggravating a previous shoulder injury.
The altercation occurred after Mr. Hamler tapped his brakes a number of times, something he said he did to avoid the vehicle in front of him. Mr. Brown's attorney, Bryan Campbell, called it a sign of reckless driving and road rage. Mr. Campbell said Mr. Hamler was "combative" after being stopped.
Council last week postponed a vote on the proposed settlement with Mr. Hamler and gave final approval to a $40,000 settlement with South Side resident Kaleb Miller, who was shot in the hand by off-duty Officer Paul Abel about 2:10 a.m. June 28, 2008. According to court records, the gun accidentally discharged during a tussle that was prompted by Mr. Abel's mistaken belief that Mr. Miller was the person who had assaulted him earlier in the evening.
Approved last year were settlements of:
• $60,000 with Alton Lawson, an East End obstetrician who said he was manhandled by Officer Gary Burns, who was working a private security detail at an East Liberty grocery store in November 2007.
• Nearly $27,000 with De'Anna Caliguiri of Oakland and Carole Wiedmann of Marshall. They claimed mistreatment by Officers Samuel Muoio and Christian Sciulli during an Oakland anti-war protest in August 2005.
• $150,000 with Daniel Hackett of Mt. Lebanon, who said he received a traffic citation and then was beaten by officers who overheard him complain about the police. The incident occurred in March 2008.
• $15,000 with Danielle Fortunato of Collier, who said she was picked up, then dumped on the curb by Officer Mark Stephenson, who was working a private detail in city uniform at a Station Square nightclub in January 2009.
Mr. O'Brien said payouts should prompt the city to "take a hard look" at policies on off-duty conduct. David Rudovsky, senior fellow at University of Pennsylvania Law School and author of "Police Misconduct: Law and Litigation," a book for lawyers, also said an increase in suits or complaints signals the need for a policy review.
"I would think any responsible public official would look at that and say maybe there's a problem," Mr. Rudovsky said, noting it would make no sense for the city to shell out money in settlements and "not do anything internally."
City solicitor Daniel Regan said "the Bureau of Police constantly strives to improve its policies and procedures."
"We're not admitting to wrongdoing" in the settlements, Mr. Regan said. "We just believe the risk of going to trial is greater than the cost of a settlement."
If a jury awards even nominal damages, he said, the city could be forced to pay plaintiff legal bills totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Neither police union President Dan O'Hara nor Mr. Campbell, who represented many of the officers involved in the settlements, could be reached for comment.
Off-duty behavior and moonlighting are special concerns in many cities.
According to the Sun-Sentinel, officials in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last year implemented new guidelines for moonlighting after acknowledging that nearly 30 officers, including ranking members of the department, worked private security details at the home and businesses of a man later sentenced to 50 years imprisonment for running a billion-dollar Ponzi scheme. The FBI said Ponzi proceeds helped pay for the security details.
Mr. Regan said Pittsburgh is safer with officers moonlighting at businesses and taking action when they see problems off-duty.
However, Councilman Bill Peduto said he's troubled by settlements for off-duty behavior.
"There needs to be a proactive role this administration is taking to get this under control," Mr. Peduto said recently, adding that "if I were out on my own time and were to get into a fight, I don't think I could then pass the bill to city of Pittsburgh residents to pay."
Mr. Brown was coming from a private detail the night he stopped Mr. Hamler, according to court records.
In the 1970s, as a young municipal officer with three children and monthly take-home pay of about $600, Jack Rinchich did as much moonlighting as he could. Now, "I have mixed views about it," said Chief Rinchich, president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police and head of the University of Charleston (W.Va.) campus police.
Not only is society more litigious now, he said, but an officer working a private security detail alone could be in more danger -- and have to use more force -- than an officer responding to an on-duty call with colleagues. Mr. Rinchich said his officers are free to pursue various part-time jobs, including shifts with other law-enforcement agencies, but they aren't allowed to work private security details in university uniform.
Besides settling the lawsuits, Pittsburgh officials in recent months have been embarrassed by a spate of unrelated cases involving criminal charges against officers.
A detective, Bradley Walker, last year was fired for his off-duty involvement in a Parkway East road-rage incident. He was convicted of various charges and is scheduled to be sentenced March 31. Former Officer Kenneth Simon faces charges in what the district attorney's office called a wrongful drug arrest; charges against another officer in the case, Anthony Scarpine, were dismissed. Fired Sergeant Eugene Hlavac was found not guilty of domestic violence charges, but the city, citing a zero-tolerance policy for domestic violence, is appealing orders to reinstate him.
The city also faces various suits related to police treatment of Group of 20 protesters in September 2009 and a suit by Jordan Miles, a teenager who says he was beaten without provocation in Homewood a year ago by three officers working an undercover operation. Officers Michael Saldutte, Richard Ewing and David Sisak remain on paid leave.
"There is certainly the potential for large judgments on the horizon," said Vic Walczak, who represents some of the G-20 plaintiffs as Pennsylvania legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. While the city generally pays settlements out of the general fund, it purchased a special insurance policy to help cover G-20 cases.
Celeste Taylor, director of racial equity monitoring for the Black Political Empowerment Project, said she doesn't believe misconduct cases have increased significantly in recent years "but that's not to say what existed previously wasn't already bad."
Because of civil-rights complaints, the U.S. Justice Department monitored the city police department from 1997 to 2002. During and immediately after that period, public scrutiny of police also was high, said Timothy P. O'Brien, a Downtown lawyer who worked on cases that led to federal oversight and, more recently, represented Mr. Hackett.
Mr. O'Brien said he believes the vigilance of police brass and the public has waned since then, creating conditions for more misconduct cases.
To hold the line on misconduct, he said, the city must make sure it has an adequate system for investigating misconduct and enforcing discipline. Independent arbitrators, he said, add a wrinkle to the process.
As with Mr. Hlavac, the city suspended Mr. Abel, but an arbitrator reinstated him. The city did not respond to requests for information about any disciplinary action taken against other officers involved in the settlements.