Dispute over police with PFAs heats up
From left, Vice-Chair Richard Carrington, Chair Marsha Hinton, and member Malik Bankston of the Citizen Police Review Board, listen to CPRB Executive Director Elizabeth Pittinger's report at the public board meeting at Kingsley Community Center on Tuesday.
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A judge on Monday relaxed weapons restrictions against a Pittsburgh police officer who was under a protection-from-abuse order. The case illustrates a key issue facing public officials as they craft policies to deal with officers accused of domestic violence.
The issue is whether an officer accused in civil court of domestic abuse, including threatening behavior, should have a service weapon temporarily removed.
Since April, Officer Todd McCollum of the East Liberty station had been under court order to sign out his service weapon at the beginning of his shift and return it at the end. But after concerns arose about his safety on the streets, Officer McCollum, a 10-year veteran, now is allowed take that gun home.
A proposed ordinance by City Council President Doug Shields would require more extensive background checks of new hires and bar the hiring of police recruits with "tendencies indicative of abusive behavior." An officer subject to a PFA would have his or her assignment and employment status reviewed by police brass.
Councilman William Peduto wants to go further. Yesterday, he proposed amendments that would compel officers who are subjects of criminal domestic violence investigations or PFAs to "surrender all firearms, including their primary service weapon, immediately."
Last night, members of the Citizen Police Review Board voiced their displeasure with the city and its Bureau of Police for failing to enact a new policy for dealing with such issues four months after the promotions of three other officers accused of domestic abuse.
"That's the insulting part, this whole four-month wait," board Chairwoman Marsha Hinton said at the panel's regular meeting. "It's unconsciously sanctioning, by no action, that this is OK and that the policy -- the non-policy -- should not be changed."
The board supports a tough policy with specific procedures for dealing with all officer-involved domestic incidents, similar to those offered by Mr. Shields and Mr. Peduto.
"It's not a one size fits all," argued Officer McCollum's attorney, Patrick Nightingale. "I hate to have this situation with Todd because it's such an aberration to the type of PFA situation that City Council is dealing with right now, and I hate that he's getting lumped into that. There was no actual violence. It was so many years in the past."
The Fraternal Order of Police has argued that such a measure would be tantamount to taking away an officer's livelihood based on a mere accusation, since police can't work if they can't carry guns, and emergency PFAs are routinely granted with a low burden of proof.
Mr. Peduto said removal of guns from officers accused of domestic abuse is considered standard practice by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the U.S. military. The alternative, he said, is risking tragedy.
"By allowing an officer to continue to carry a weapon, the city could become liable if anything should happen," he said.
In April, an Allegheny County Common Pleas Court judge ordered Officer McCollum to relinquish all his firearms after a former girlfriend, Kimberly Stanley, a fellow police officer, filed a PFA against him and asked that his guns be confiscated.
Officer Stanley, a 12-year veteran, works out of the North Side station. Her relationship with Officer McCollum ended in 2000.
In her PFA petition, she said he told someone else that he "intended to kill anyone that had interfered with him, and that I was among that group."
Mr. Nightingale appealed, arguing that his client could not work without a gun. With the consent of Officer Stanley, the judge allowed Officer McCollum to sign his gun in and out from the station. He was not to take a gun home.
Last week, Mr. Nightingale appealed again, this time to allow Officer McCollum to carry his service weapon at all times.
He filed the paperwork after learning that a gang member and violent felon in Homewood told officers that he had been arrested by "the one who ain't allowed to take his gun home at night," according to a Sept. 27 internal police memo from Sgt. Jason Lando to Cmdr. RaShall Brackney at the East Liberty station. The heading of the memo was "Officer Safety Concern."
Knowledge that an officer could not take a gun home was "the word on the street," the memo said.
Mr. Nightingale said it was not good for the criminal element to know an officer is not armed while off duty.
On Monday, family court Judge Kathleen R. Mulligan ruled that Officer McCollum could carry his service gun at all times.
Officer Stanley agreed not to fight Mr. Nightingale's petition.
"My client and I thought long and hard about it and discussed it at great length and decided if there was a concern for Mr. McCollum, that Miss Stanley did not want to be put in the position of possibly being blamed if Mr. McCollum was going to be harmed, if this really was a legitimate safety issue for him," said Eileen Yacknin, Officer Stanley's lawyer.
Ms. Yacknin acknowledged that Officer McCollum has not violated the terms of the PFA. He is not allowed to contact, harass, threaten or stalk Officer Stanley under the order, which expires in December. She also said her client was giving Officer McCollum the benefit of the doubt.
Ms. Yacknin said her client remained worried about her personal safety, noting that a PFA is nothing more than a piece of paper.
The issue of domestic violence was brought to the fore by the June 18 promotions of three police officers with histories of domestic abuse allegations.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has found that 35 city officers, including Officer McCollum, have been the subjects of protection orders, and some have been allowed to carry firearms while on duty.
Officer McCollum also was the subject of another PFA, one filed by Emilie Kirkpatrick, a former city 911 police dispatcher. That PFA was converted to a no-contact consent agreement good until April.
Police union President James Malloy wrote to council members Friday urging them to reject Mr. Shields' legislation, saying it unfairly singled out police among all of the city's workers and undermined the police chief's authority.
"The chief must be given the freedom to use his judgment on the evaluation of issues of domestic violence," he wrote.
First Published October 24, 2007 12:00 am