Whitaker police ordered to follow new procedure

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Troubles in the Whitaker police department led the Allegheny County district attorney's office to announce Monday that it will compel the small Mon Valley force to first get approval from prosecutors before obtaining search warrants.

At a news conference where he discussed police integrity and related matters, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said four issues prompted the change -- including the accusations against suspended Whitaker police Officer William Davis, 36, who Mr. Zappala said falsified information to get a warrant to gain access to a home last year.

"I cannot think of a more egregious misuse of a public trust, and I'm not going to permit that to happen anymore," Mr. Zappala said.

Whitaker police Chief John Vargo declined comment, saying he just learned of the change on Monday from a reporter.

Before, if borough police were seeking an affidavit of probable cause, officers had to make a pitch to a district judge, who would determine if the search was reasonable, District Judge Richard Olasz Jr. said.

Under the new practice, police will be free to get any district judge to sign off on a search -- after an on-call assistant district attorney, available 24 hours a day, gives police the go-ahead, Mr. Zappala's spokesman Mike Manko said.

District attorney approval for search warrant applications is commonly used for major crimes, such as homicides or felony sexual assaults.

The Whitaker police department submits "probably less than a dozen" search warrant applications annually, Judge Olasz said.

"There's not too many, to be honest with you," he said.

Mr. Zappala cited three other reasons for the new requirement: the position the chief had taken in the media concerning the Davis case; the "horrendous" manner in which evidence was being handled in the department; and the number of arrests that did not move beyond a preliminary hearing.

Whitaker Mayor John Karichko gave investigators from the district attorney's office access to the police department evidence room May 1, after Mr. Manko said their work on the Davis case made them concerned about the room's lack of organization.

Statistics provided by the district attorney's office Monday show 39 of the 93 arrests the department made from July 22, 2011, through July 12 of this year "did not survive a preliminary hearing," Mr. Zappala said. He said he understands that "a lot of that" has to do with officers not showing up to those proceedings.

According to those statistics, 31 of Officer Davis' 57 arrests across those two years resulted in a guilty plea, a verdict or an Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program, and 24 were withdrawn. Two other cases were pending.

Mr. Karichko could not be reached for comment.

Officer Davis is awaiting trial in two cases, the one Mr. Zappala referenced that includes charges of perjury, official oppression, false swearing and unsworn falsification to authorities and a separate one on charges of official oppression, making a false statement and related offenses.

breaking - neigh_south

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1944 or on Twitter @borntolede. First Published August 19, 2013 1:30 PM


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