Former Pittsburgh Chief Harper defends police handling of detective
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Nate Harper had little on the line Monday at a civil trial as he made his first significant public comments since he resigned as Pittsburgh police chief a month ago.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has already shunted him aside in the face of a federal investigation. His pension has been approved. A plaintiff's verdict at the trial would come out of the city's coffers, not the ex-chief's pocket.
Still, Mr. Harper in around an hour of testimony defended the bureau and its handling of a detective who faced 32 citizen complaints, many alleging excessive force, in a 17-year career that ended ignominiously.
"We were monitoring [the detective's] discipline, his behavior, when I was assistant chief," said Mr. Harper, called in a surprise move by plaintiff's counsel on the first day of trial. "[W]hen you look at the suspensions and counseling he got, it appears that he did change his behavior."
Mr. Harper, Assistant Chief George Trosky and the city are the defendants in the lawsuit brought by Jarret Fate, 32, of Squirrel Hill. Mr. Fate sued over a May 1, 2010, incident in which, he said, then-Detective Bradley Walker choked and punched him, vandalized his vintage Porsche and pointed a service firearm at him following a fender bender on a ramp from Oakland to the Parkway.
Mr. Walker, who later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges stemming from the incident and was fired by the city, is neither a defendant nor a likely witness. Mr. Fate's argument is that the defendants failed to supervise Mr. Walker or to discipline him despite an average of nearly two complaints a year.
Once, the city assigned Mr. Walker to desk duty, only to move him back to patrol, said attorney Josh Autry, representing Mr. Fate. "They did not have to leave him patrolling the streets of Pittsburgh with a Pittsburgh-issued weapon," Mr. Autry said.
Mr. Autry walked Mr. Harper through the complaints received during the first decade of Mr. Walker's career. In several cases, citizens accused Mr. Walker of choking them.
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 disciplined as well."
Mr. Autry asked whether a single choking incident could warrant termination. "That is correct," Mr. Harper said, but he confirmed that there was no effort to fire Mr. Walker until 2010.
The former chief called Mr. Walker "very active in the assignments" he worked, particularly in narcotics. Mr. Autry's examination of Mr. Harper is expected to continue this morning.
The case may hinge both on the city's disciplinary efforts, and whether Mr. Walker is found to have been acting as law enforcement or a private citizen when he choked and bloodied Mr. Fate and battered his blue Porsche.
"He was just a private citizen who lost his temper," said assistant city solicitor Mike Kennedy 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.
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."
Mr. Walker was off-duty and in plainclothes, driving his son to work when his car and Mr. Fate's collided.
Witnesses said they saw Mr. Walker prancing around Mr. Fate's car, screaming obscenities. One said it would never have occurred to her that he was a police officer. Another said she first assumed he was law enforcement, but then heard him yelling, and decided he must not be police.
State Trooper Francis Murphy, who investigated the incident, said he had no idea Mr. Walker was a police officer until Mr. Fate revealed that his assailant "asked for 'license, registration and insurance.' And [troopers] looked at each other and said, 'Oh, boy, I think we have a police officer.' "
The trial is before U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab. Today the jury is expected to hear the video depositions of Robert McNeilly, former chief of Pittsburgh's police and now chief of Elizabeth Township, and his wife, Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Catherine McNeilly, both of whom have said bureau discipline was lax under Mr. Harper.
Mr. Ravenstahl asked for and got Mr. Harper's resignation after federal agents interviewed the mayor about the use of debit cards tied to an unauthorized account at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union. Mr. Harper also came under fire this year for starting a business along with four subordinates. The bureau's use of confiscated narcotics funds and purchase of uniforms without a contract have also been questioned.
Asked for his side of the story at the end of the day's testimony, he said, "No, no comment," as he shut the door of a courthouse conference room.
First Published March 19, 2013 12:00 am