Pittsburgh police officers, who have long grumbled about what they see as flaws in the magisterial district judge system, have taken to formally documenting their troubles with the hope that other officials will notice.
"I am continuously informed by officers from every division of the Bureau about outrageous actions, language and improper rulings that occur almost daily, primarily at the District Justice level," Sgt. Charles Henderson told rank-and-file officers in an email this week, urging them to keep a written log of what they view as judges' bad behavior in court. "There are procedural errors, improper remarks made to officers, sexist language used toward female officers and decisions made that far exceed the scope of a prima facie case; the limit of their authority."
Although he did not cite specific judges or cases, Sgt. Henderson also pointed to problems with "inappropriate bonds being set for violent offenders" and generally "appalling treatment."
Officers will detail their concerns on "case monitoring request forms" that they will show Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Donna Jo McDaniel, who, they hope, can spot trends and offer recourse.
The effort offers a glimpse into the sometimes contentious relationship between police officers and the district judges who set bond and decide whether those they arrest should stand trial.
"At the very least, this will be an attempt to bring those elected officials up to the standard to which we are held," wrote Sgt. Henderson, who works in the Zone 5 station in Highland Park. "Why should we risk our lives for the cause of others only to be improperly and publicly mocked, chided and scorned by elected officials of the judicial branch who do not possess and/or exhibit the skills needed to fulfill their obligations to society?"
Deputy police Chief Paul Donaldson, who approved the plan, said it is the first formal effort to document officers' concerns that some judges are soft on criminals or are anti-police.
"There's not one incident that precipitated this [effort]," he said. "The form is new, but the complaints have been going on forever. Often, all we hear is grumbling among the officers, and they do have some legitimate complaints."
Judge McDaniel's staff said she was on vacation and unavailable to comment. Claire Capristo, chief deputy court administrator, said the president judge might be able to help sort out misunderstandings, but problems with judicial temperament are the purview of the state's Judicial Conduct Board, which investigates allegations of misconduct by judges.
Ms. Capristo said she was unaware of specific problems or complaints in district court but added, "they may regularly disagree with a magisterial district judge's decisions, but the individual is an elected official and they can make those decisions. ... If there is a misunderstanding or something like that, we'd certainly like the opportunity to discuss it, but if they don't like the way things are going or sentences people receive, there's not much we can do about that."
Police union president Sgt. Mike LaPorte said officers have reported trouble with several district judges.
"It's been an ongoing problem," Sgt. LaPorte said. "Officers will go to court and, in some cases, be berated in front of the victims and the people they have arrested."
He pointed to District Judge Oscar Petite Jr., who he said overstepped his bounds by dismissing criminal charges against Jordan Miles, the Creative And Performing Arts High School student who claims in a federal lawsuit that three plainclothes officers beat him during his arrest in January 2010.
Judge Petite said Thursday that not every case belongs in Common Pleas court. He said he was unaware that officers planned to monitor district judges but added, "I'm not on anybody's side. I'm the guy in the middle, and I try to stay there."
Several district judges said they were unaware of the police effort to monitor them and what might have spawned it. Will it change the way they operate?
"Absolutely not," District Judge Kevin Cooper said. "This is the same old story by the police. ... We are neutral and detached from the police. While they may think they should win the majority of the decisions, that's not the way the justice system works."
Prosecutors can petition a Common Pleas judge to modify a defendant's bond and can refile charges that are dismissed in district court. A spokesman for the Allegheny County district attorney's office declined to comment.
"If this is something of an internal control base for officers to track certain things, I guess I understand," District Judge James J. Hanley Jr. said. "If it's going to be used as some type of personal vendetta, I suppose I'd have a problem with it. I have no delusions of grandeur. I'm not saying everyone loves me, and I know that it's not going to change the way I do my job."
Sadie Gurman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1878.