Officer cleared in off-duty assault on South Side
Share with others:
His methods, the judge said, were "inappropriate, imprudent and ill-advised."
But Pittsburgh police Officer Paul Abel's off-duty altercation with a South Side man last year wasn't criminal, Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning ruled yesterday.
Following a nonjury trial, Judge Manning cleared Officer Abel of aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and DUI charges and perhaps cleared a path for his return to the police force.
Officer Abel, who has been suspended without pay since his arrest, was not reinstated yesterday and a decision has not been made about his status with the department, police spokeswoman Diane Richard said.
After the ruling, Officer Abel declined comment except to say he wanted his job back. Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1 President Dan O'Hara said the union would fight to get Officer Abel reinstated, but it is a process that could take some time.
Officer Abel, 35, an eight-year veteran of the force, was arrested June 28 after he shot 21-year-old Kaleb Miller in the hand. Officer Abel claimed Mr. Miller had punched him moments earlier while he was in his car at a stoplight. Officer Abel, who testified he had four beers and two shots that night while celebrating his wife's birthday, grabbed his service weapon from his trunk and pursued the suspect.
Officer Abel drove around the block until he spotted Mr. Miller, whom he knew from the neighborhood. Witnesses said the officer hit Mr. Miller on the neck with the butt of his Glock and the gun went off, grazing Mr. Miller's hand.
Officer Abel said he was trying to make an arrest for aggravated assault and had to be aggressive because Mr. Miller did not obey his commands to lie on the ground.
Mr. Miller denied punching the officer, and two other witnesses said Mr. Miller looked nothing like Officer Abel's assailant.
But the case hinged on whether Officer Abel was arresting a suspect or acting in retaliation -- regardless of whether or not he had the right man. Judge Manning noted that the law allows officers discretion in the use of force, and police officers can act in their official capacity whether they're on- or off-duty.
"It is not the obligation of this court to police the police department," Judge Manning said.
The Citizens Police Review Board can hold public hearings about officer conduct -- and has in the past with Officer Abel -- but the organization has little real power.
Elizabeth Pittinger, the executive director of the review board, said several citizen complaints filed against Officer Abel reflected a history of "excessive force and false reports, untruthfulness."
But Officer O'Hara said the review board is a waste of taxpayer money and that oversight of the department comes from the city's Office of Municipal Investigations, the FBI or the district attorney's office -- which brought the charges against Officer Abel.
"Beth Pittinger will tell you anytime an officer does something wrong -- whether it's a mistake or not -- they should be crucified," Officer O'Hara said.
"When you have an officer such as Paul Abel, an aggressive officer who goes out and does his job and is committed to doing it well, you're going to have complaints."
Officer O'Hara said when he responded to the scene that night, he didn't think Officer Abel was intoxicated.
In addition to Mr. Miller's, there are three other citizen review complaints pending against Officer Abel.
One involves a brawl in the hallway of the Allegheny County Courthouse in 2007 between Officer Abel and his brother-in-law, Muhamid Desmond Thornton. According to the complaint, Officer Abel was the aggressor in the fight, but Mr. Thornton was the one charged in the altercation. Mr. Thornton was acquitted by a jury of all charges except disorderly conduct.
In another complaint, Officer Abel is accused of pressuring his wife to make false claims of sexual abuse against the grandparents of her children.
And Joseph Stubenrauch, of Allentown, claimed Officer Abel slammed his head against a wall when he told the officer not to use a Taser on his grandfather. Officer Abel then arrested Mr. Stubenrauch and later threw him against his patrol car, according to the complaint, causing injuries that required hospitalization.
Ms. Pittinger said if Officer Abel returns to the force, the review board will hold public hearings to address his conduct.
Officer O'Hara said the police department could take one of three positions on Officer Abel's return: move to reinstate immediately, ask Officer Abel be retrained in certain areas or move to terminate him.
If the department asks for termination, the case would go to an arbitrator. Officer O'Hara said he would expect an arbitrator to rule quickly in Officer Abel's favor because he was cleared of all criminal charges.
First Published June 12, 2009 12:00 am