Pittsburgh police leadership subject of civil trial
Officials to argue they fought to discipline officers
March 17, 2013 8:00 AM
Did Bureau of Police leadership under former Chief Nate Harper lose its grip on the region's largest law enforcement agency?
By Rich Lord and Liz Navratil Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A trial set to start Monday will put to a jury a question that's been on the minds of many Pittsburghers all year: Did Bureau of Police leadership under former Chief Nate Harper lose its grip on the region's largest law enforcement agency?
That's the contention of Jarret Fate, a 32-year-old Squirrel Hill man who said he was choked and punched, and his vintage Porsche was vandalized, by then-Pittsburgh police Detective Bradley Walker in a 2010 road rage incident. Mr. Fate didn't sue Mr. Walker, but rather named the city, Assistant Chief George Trosky and Mr. Harper -- the chief from late 2006 through last month, when Mayor Luke Ravenstahl demanded his resignation following the mayor's interview with the FBI and federal prosecutors.
Mr. Fate's trial is expected to focus on alleged lax discipline in the bureau, and comes at a time when a federal investigation, and news reports, have raised questions about money management in the $71.5 million-a-year operation. Problems have become acute enough that city council Public Safety Chair Theresa Kail-Smith plans to hold a meeting of bureau and union leaders, plus the Allegheny County district attorney's office, in council's conference room Monday.
"I definitely think that there's a problem and that's one of the reasons we introduced some legislation," Ms. Kail-Smith said.
On Friday, attorneys representing a woman who was threatened by former city police officer Adam Skweres sued that officer, the city and Mr. Harper alleging that top brass ignored warning signs.
"I notice a difference recently," said Alan H. Perer, one of the attorneys representing the victim. "I've been doing this for 37 years. ... In the last several years, I've just noticed it. I don't know whether it's the training, or the supervision, or the discipline.
"It seems as if there's a systemic problem in the Pittsburgh police force."
Leadership on trial
Mr. Fate's direct tormenter was Mr. Walker, 46, who pleaded guilty to simple assault and other charges and was fired by the city. Mr. Fate said that Mr. Walker, in plainclothes and driving an unmarked vehicle, drove at high speed into the Porsche. When they pulled over, according to the civil complaint, Mr. Walker kicked the Porsche's door, reached in the window, grabbed Mr. Fate's neck and choked him while yelling profanities and threats.
When Mr. Fate tried to drive away, the complaint said, Mr. Walker pulled in front of him, got out and started punching and kicking the Porsche, shattering the windshield. Mr. Walker, according to Mr. Fate, then pulled his duty weapon and demanded license and registration, before leaving and trying to initiate charges against his victim.
A pretrial stipulation filed by attorneys for both sides lists 32 known allegations of misconduct against Mr. Walker during his tenure as a city police officer, the first an alleged choking in 1993 and the last a 2008 allegation that he "slammed a citizen to the ground."
The complaint said that the city, Mr. Harper and Chief Trosky should have "prevented this officer from using his service firearm, police cruiser and fists to assault a defenseless citizen." Mr. Walker hasn't been named as a witness, so the case will focus squarely on his supervision.
At a pretrial conference Thursday, U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab said there was "sufficient evidence for the plaintiff to prove its case if it's believed by the jury."
Mr. Fate's attorney, Josh Autry, asked whether the city would consider a settlement. "We're in a difficult situation here," said Assistant City Solicitor Michael Kennedy, without elaborating.
As of Friday afternoon, the case hadn't settled.
The case got more complicated for the city after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted Robert W. McNeilly Jr., who preceded Mr. Harper as chief, and whose wife, Catherine McNeilly, is a longtime commander with the Pittsburgh police. "Discipline became much more lax" under Mr. Harper, Chief McNeilly, now of Elizabeth Township, said in the March 3 article. "My wife did disciplinary reports that when they got to the chief's office, they were dismissed."
That prompted Mr. Autry to depose both McNeillys on Wednesday. According to a motion filed Thursday, she said "that if former Chief Harper did not dismiss the disciplinary actions she or other supervisors filed against officers, then Director of Public Safety Michael Huss would."
On Tuesday, plaintiffs are likely to play excerpts from the five hours of videotaped depositions of Chief McNeilly and Cmdr. McNeilly, and may call as witnesses Mr. Huss, Mr. Harper and members of the bureau's current command staff.
Mr. Huss declined Friday to comment because he expects to be a witness.
City officials are likely to point out Tuesday that they have fought to discipline some officers, like Eugene Hlavac, 45, who was arrested in 2009 -- and then cleared -- of assaulting his ex-girlfriend, who is the mother of his child. An arbitration panel ordered him reinstated to his job after Lauren Maughan failed to appear at two arbitration hearings to testify against him, and the city lost multiple appeals.
The city also tried to fire Officer Paul Abel, who in June 2008 shot a man in a case of mistaken identity, but was found not guilty of criminal charges, and was returned to work by an arbitrator.
"Even though you could say that it was under [Harper's] reign that discipline was lax, there were people above him or beyond him that were also responsible for the discipline being lax as well," said Cmdr. McNeilly. "There were arbitrators that would sometimes reverse him or the public safety director who would reverse him."
She said that earlier this year, she suggested the demotion of Sgt. Stephen Matakovich when he was accused of threatening, in a recorded conversation with another officer, to kick Lt. Michael Hajduk, who was not then present.
Cmdr. McNeilly said she was disappointed that Mr. Harper, who was chief at the time, suggested a one-day suspension for Sgt. Matakovich and moved him to Zone 5 in Highland Park. Sgt. Matakovich filed a grievance and, according to the commander, Mr. Huss decided to send the sergeant back to Zone 3. "Needless to say, I was pretty livid," the commander said.
She said she was told that Mr. Huss made his decision because he did not think that Lt. Hajduk, who has a long-standing rivalry with Sgt. Matakovich, was in physical danger. Mr. Huss ordered Sgt. Matakovich to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and to go to mediation with Lt. Hajduk, the commander said.
Fraternal Order of Police leaders contacted Friday preferred Mr. Harper's approach to Cmdr. McNeilly's.
Mr. Harper "was fair in all of my dealings, although many times we didn't see eye to eye and the discipline that he imposed was more than I had expected," said Sgt. Mike LaPorte, president of the local union.
"You see the way all these chiefs and commanders are fighting each other, it's like a bad episode of 'Survivor,' " he added. "These are the people [Chief McNeilly] put in place because they were head-waggers."
Mr. Perer, the lawyer in the Skweres case, is prepared to argue that Mr. Harper's regime was far too slow to act.
On March 11, Skweres, 35, of Lincoln Place, pleaded guilty to 26 counts involving sexual approaches to five women and was simultaneously sentenced to 3 1/2 to eight years in prison. The lawsuit filed by Mr. Perer a week later deals with the claims of one woman, Christie Leonard of Knoxville, who said she first reported Skweres to the city in 2008 after he tried to intimidate her into sex.
"She was given a hard time," Mr. Perer said Friday. "Well, she took two lie detector tests and passed, and they did nothing. They did nothing to this guy. ... Why was he allowed to remain on the force for another four years?"
He said he has in recent years had trouble getting basic incident reports from the city bureau, and he believes that is part and parcel of the bureau's general drift.
"This whole police inquiry just shows a pretty damaged, flawed police system right now," he said. "These are all symptoms of it."
'Gloom and doom'
Last month, the FBI took documents from police headquarters and the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union, and they appear to be looking at the flow of money sent to pay for off-duty officers into an off-the-books account.
The Post-Gazette has reported that bureau brass spent money that was supposed to be reserved for narcotics investigations on travel for litigation legwork and a wide variety of training expenses, plus Gatorade for police at the G-20 Summit in 2009. Officials even strayed from normal financial procedures when buying police uniforms, spending close to $60,000 with a Kentucky company despite the existence of a contract with a firm based in Lawrenceville.
"The investigation and what's been revealed over the last few months point to one thing," said city Controller Michael Lamb. "There's a real problem in dealing with the basics of financing our police, and if we're not getting that straight it's obviously going to affect the way that we're providing public safety to the people of Pittsburgh."
Revelations of a secret account at the credit union closely preceded Mr. Harper's resignation, and claims from officials including Mr. Huss and Mr. Ravenstahl that they did not know of the unauthorized fund. Eight debit cards that drew from the fund were created, and some of the police officials whose names were on those cards said they knew nothing about it until news broke.
"Why did the chief get me a debit card?" Assistant Chief of Operations Maurita Bryant said Thursday, still upset that she had been drawn into the story. As soon as she learned about the debit card in her name, "I ran down to the credit union to get that little piece of paper that says that account was not used. ... The old-timers would say the only thing that you have is your name, your reputation, and I've worked hard not to tarnish it."
Last week, after the Post-Gazette reported that funds from the Confiscated Narcotics Proceeds Imprest Fund that are supposed to be reserved for expenses associated with drug probes were used much more broadly, Chief Bryant said she didn't know the money's use was restricted.
Mr. Lamb said his auditors "very clearly talked to [police officials] about the need for all spending to be related to narcotics and Maurita Bryant was in that exit conference" following a 2010 audit that was critical of the bureau's management of the funds. "There is so much that needs to be done in this city with respect to narcotics investigations that diverting money from narcotics investigations doesn't make sense to us."
Chief Bryant, who was assistant chief for investigations in 2010, said Thursday that she was involved in the audit but was never told that she was using funds improperly.
"I definitely think that there's a problem, and that's one of the reasons we introduced some legislation to solve some of the problems," said Ms. Kail-Smith, city council's public safety chair. Her legislation would create a trust fund to hold money paid to the city to cover its overhead when its officers do off-duty work for private entities.
She's convening a closed-door Monday meeting to discuss that and to identify "other issues we might be missing that we should be looking at."
Financial irregularities and disciplinary disagreements can affect safety on the streets of Pittsburgh, officials said.
"I think that we're hearing that people have concerns with favoritism within the police department and there has been definite division in the department," said Ms. Kail-Smith. "I think that our officers do a good job on the street. ... But it definitely has an effect on morale."
The drumbeat of negative news is "distracting," said Chief Bryant, especially for someone like her who was not part of the "inner circle."
"[Y]ou don't know the details of it," she said, "and you feel foolish after you hear it. You're watching the news, you're reading the paper and you're feeling foolish, like wow.
"The work doesn't go away and you've got to keep up a good front for the officers because you don't want them to think that the gloom and doom is ..."