A federal judge Wednesday released former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper and current Assistant Chief George Trosky from a lawsuit alleging indifference to discipline in the bureau, but said a jury must decide whether the city failed to supervise former Detective Bradley Walker prior to a road rage incident.
Closing arguments in the case are expected this morning. Then the eight-member jury will be asked to reach unanimity on whether Mr. Walker was acting as an officer when he choked Jarret Fate on May 1, 2010, whether he used excessive force and whether the city's disciplinary practices led to the incident.
Mr. Fate, 32, of Squirrel Hill opted not to sue Mr. Walker, and testified that was because he feared the officer would have a vendetta against him.
His attorney has argued that the city, Mr. Harper and Chief Trosky were dismissive of the 32 citizen complaints lodged against Mr. Walker during his 17-year career, and that emboldened the detective to choke and threaten people, including Mr. Fate.
Judge Schwab said that investigations of complaints by the city's Office of Municipal Investigations and the city's contract with the police union left Mr. Harper and Chief Trosky "in a difficult place" in regard to disciplining Mr. Walker.
"I don't believe that anyone, or a reasonable jury, could find that ... former Cmdr. Trosky and former chief of police Harper were deliberately indifferent, nor quite frankly that anything they did or did not do was the proximate cause of harm to the plaintiff," the judge said.
Prior to that decision, Mr. Fate recounted the incident that led to Mr. Walker's firing and conviction on three misdemeanors.
Mr. Fate's car struck the left rear end of then-Detective Walker's car as both left the Parkway toward Oakland. Mr. Fate began to pull over, but traffic stopped him.
"I was sitting in my vehicle, and the next thing I knew, I was being choked," Mr. Fate told an eight-person jury. "The individual started yelling profanity at me and tightening his grip around my neck, and saying something to the effect of, 'You messed with the wrong person.' "
Mr. Fate testified that he drove away but Mr. Walker drove in front of him and boxed him in.
"He reaches for a weapon, pulls the weapon, and approaches me with the weapon drawn," Mr. Fate said. "I believe at this point that he may have asked me for my license, registration and insurance."
Mr. Walker never identified himself as a police officer, said Mr. Fate.
The city has argued that he was off duty and acting as a private citizen.
Mr. Fate said that Mr. Walker punched through his car window, punched and shattered his windshield and battered the body of his 1975 Porsche 914. Glass cut Mr. Fate's face, he testified.
He said that he has since lived in fear of Mr. Walker.
Mr. Harper testified later that Mr. Walker "had good attributes as an officer," although they didn't excuse his uses of excessive force.
According to documents presented by a city attorney, Mr. Walker was named narcotics and vice officer of the month for March 2005 for making 11 drug arrests and seven firearms violation arrests, and engaging in a search that yielded 162 stamp bags of heroin, some marijuana, six guns and a bulletproof vest. The detective later got a Meritorious Service Award for making 24 arrests for firearms violations that year.
On cross-examination by plaintiff's attorney Josh Autry, Mr. Harper discussed a 2007 domestic violence allegation made by Mr. Walker's wife and son, after which the bureau dealt the detective a one-day suspension and ordered a steroid test.
"He was charged [in the incident] but that did not go to court, as I recall, because his wife and son did not wish to testify against him," Mr. Harper said.
Mr. Harper resigned as chief last month. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl sought the resignation after federal investigators interviewed the mayor about an unauthorized account at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union.
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1542 and on Twitter: @richelord.