Pittsburgh police discipline in question

Harper twice decided not to fire former detective before incident

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Discipline at the storm-tossed Pittsburgh Bureau of Police was the topic at a civil trial Tuesday, as current and recent chiefs and a commander weighed in on the handling of accusations against a former detective.

It's hard to fire an errant officer, according to testimony by two former and one current commander. But they disagreed on whether the bureau under recently retired Chief Nate Harper tried hard enough.

"Chief Harper dealt with discipline in a different way than chiefs of the past," said Cmdr. Catherine McNeilly, in a deposition videotaped last week and played at trial. "He was not the disciplinarian that some of the chiefs were."

Mr. Harper said he relied on the findings of the Office of Municipal Investigations, which probes complaints against city employees.

"We cannot change the outcome of their investigation," he said, and if OMI does not sustain a complaint, it's "very difficult" to enforce discipline.

The testimony came in the case of Jarret Fate, 32, of Squirrel Hill against Mr. Harper, Assistant Chief George Trosky and the city. Mr. Fate has said that on May 1, 2010, then-Detective Bradley Walker choked and punched him, and vandalized his vintage Porsche.

Mr. Walker was convicted of three misdemeanors and fired. The civil trial has focused on 32 prior citizen complaints against Mr. Walker, from 1993 through 2010, and the police bureau's handling of them, with Mr. Fate's side arguing that the city should have fired the detective earlier.

Mr. Harper admitted that he could have twice fired Mr. Walker in 2007.

That year, the detective "backfisted" another detective in the mouth twice during a loud disagreement, according to reports presented at trial.

"I could've terminated both of them," Mr. Harper said.

"But you did not," said Josh Autry, attorney for Mr. Fate.

"That is correct," Mr. Harper said.

A 2007 domestic violence allegation, in which Mr. Walker's wife said he struck her across the mouth and choked their son, led police brass to order steroid testing for the detective and to suspend him for one day. Mr. Harper confirmed that he could have fired the detective then, but didn't.

Sgt. Mike LaPorte, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 1, sat through part of the day's testimony and said afterward that Mr. Harper was getting a bad rap. He said bureau management issued around 50 disciplinary action reports last year.

Mr. Harper "issued everything from counseling [orders] to terminations," Sgt. LaPorte said. "What more can you ask for?"

Cmdr. McNeilly said that while Mr. Harper was chief her serious disciplinary recommendations were undermined fewer than five times, and her less serious disciplinary recommendations were undermined fewer than 10 times. She said a commander's disciplinary recommendation is sometimes reduced by the chief, sometimes by public safety director Michael Huss, and sometimes by labor arbitrators as a result of grievances.

She said arbitrators overrule decisions to fire officers "very often" and that it's "castrating" to upper management.

Her husband, Robert W. McNeilly Jr., is one of the city's former chiefs, and now serves that role in Elizabeth Township. He also testified by video deposition and complained about arbitration.

"The deck is stacked against management," he said. He said that even ostensibly neutral arbitrators favor the union, because "there wouldn't even be an arbitration if the union didn't request it."

The Law Department provided plaintiffs with a list of seven police who have been fired in the past five years. Five were returned to duty by arbitrators.

Chief Trosky testified that he supervised Mr. Walker for three or four years. "When he worked for me, I didn't see misconduct," he said.

Mr. Walker "actually went into the worse neighborhoods, went after the baddest of the bad guys," Chief Trosky said. "His objective was to get guns and drugs off the street. And he was very good at it."

Mr. Autry proposed showing the jury video shot Monday of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl advocating the firing of Detective Frank Rende, saying it was evidence that the city could seek to terminate an officer for an incident less serious than those of which Mr. Bradley was accused.

U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab declined, saying the weekend incident involving Detective Rende, in which he was videotaped charging a bar patron and apparently putting a Taser to his neck, was "not relevant" and would require "a mini-trial" all its own if introduced.

Mr. Harper resigned a month ago upon the mayor's request. The request came the day the mayor was interviewed by federal agents regarding police use of an unauthorized account at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union.


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord. First Published March 20, 2013 4:00 AM


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