Ex-Pittsburgh police chief Harper testifies in federal trial focusing on discipline of officers
Jarret Fate, 32, of Squirrel Hill, listens to his attorney Josh Autry, before entering the federal courthouse in Downtown Pittsburgh today.
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In his first substantive public comments since his resignation a month ago, former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper testified today that the bureau tried to discipline former Detective Bradley Walker, whose conduct is at the heart of a civil trial in a case brought by Squirrel Hill man Jarret Fate against the city, Mr. Harper and Assistant Chief George Trosky.
"It appears that when you look at the suspensions and counseling he got, it appears that he did change his behavior," said Mr. Harper, as Mr. Fate's attorney worked through a list of more than 30 citizen complaints against Mr. Walker from 1993 through his 2010 firing. He called Mr. Walker "very active in the assignments" he worked, particularly in the area of narcotics enforcement.
Mr. Harper confirmed that Mr. Walker "had several incidents with the use of choking and they were reviewed," by bureau leadership. "He might've been retrained. He was discplined as well."
Mr. Autry asked whether a single choking incident could warrant termination. "That is correct," Mr. Harper said, but he later confirmed that there was no effort to fire Mr. Walker until 2010.
In a surprise move for the first day of trial, plaintiff's attorney Josh Autry called Mr. Harper as an adverse witness. Prior to that, Mr. Harper watched impassively as Mr. Autry sought to pin blame on him for Mr. Walker's May 1, 2010, road rage incident. Mr. Autry's examination of Mr. Harper is expected to continue tomorrow morning.
Mr. Harper, along with Chief Trosky and the city, are the defendants in a lawsuit filed by Mr. Fate, 32, who said then-Detective Bradley Walker choked him, vandalized his vintage Porsche and pointed a service firearm at him.
Mr. Walker, who later pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the incident and was fired by the city, is neither a defendant nor a likely witness.
"Who I don't represent in this case is Bradley Walker," assistant city solicitor Mike Kennedy said during his opening argument to the jury. "The plaintiff just decided to sue the city and those two gentlemen who served the city for nearly 70 years" total, he said, referring to Mr. Harper and Chief Trosky.
Josh Autry, the attorney for Mr. Fate, said the reason the city and its police supervisors are responsible is because of the 30-plus prior allegations of excessive force leveled against Mr. Walker during his 17 years with the bureau.
"They never tried to terminate Detective Walker," said Mr. Autry, in his opening statement.
Once, Mr. Walker's supervisors placed him in a desk job following a domestic incident, Mr. Autry said, but that didn't last.
"They did not have to leave him patrolling the streets of Pittsburgh with a Pittsburgh-issued weapon," Mr. Autry said.
Mr. Kennedy said that at the time of the fender-bender which led to Mr. Walker's attack on Mr. Fate, the detective was not on duty, but was rather driving his son to the son's place of employment.
"He was just a private citizen who lost his temper," Mr. Kennedy said.
If the city had fired Mr. Walker a year earlier, Mr. Kennedy argued, he might have had little incentive to stop where he did, and "I'm afraid it might've been much worse for Jarret Fate."
The recently retired chief declined to talk with reporters afterward. "No, sir," Mr. Harper said asked whether he would have anything to say. "That's it."
Mr. Harper resigned last month at the urging of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, following the mayor's interview with federal investigators who were asking about the use of debit cards tied to an unauthorized account at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union.
The trial is before U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab.
Mr. Autry said that Judge Schwab has barred him from trying to introduce evidence of past excessive force accusations against Mr. Harper and Chief Trosky, though he had argued that their past conduct was relevant.
"If the people at the top are breaking the rules, if the people at the top are going around hurting innocent people, then we should probably expect the people underneath them to do it," Mr. Autry said. "From top to bottom, there is a problem in the police department, and that problem is use of force, not only against bad people, but against innocent people like Jarret Fate."
First Published March 18, 2013 9:34 am