Tensions surfacing between Pittsburgh police, private guards
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A series of incidents involving Pittsburgh police and private security guards, culminating in a guard's arrest late Tuesday, has exposed tensions between public and private safety forces in the city.
Several confrontations that started Saturday became public late Wednesday, when Allegheny County Sheriff William Mullen announced the arrest of private security guard Andre Hughes, 34, of Beechview.
Mr. Hughes was arrested Tuesday night and charged with, among other things, unlawfully possessing a firearm. He had been a subject of police interest since 2010, when an incident at the county courthouse led to a search of his home, the discovery of what the sheriff's office called "an assortment of police paraphernalia," and charges of impersonating a public servant.
His trial began last week, and he testified, according to the sheriff's office, that he was no longer working in security.
On Tuesday, when deputies spotted him working as a private security guard for Stanton Heights-based Gold Shield Security, with a uniform and firearm, they followed his vehicle and then stopped him. He was in possession of a gun and Taser, according to the police criminal complaint. He was taken to jail, charged with firearm violations and perjury.
The complaint filed by the sheriffs said they were acting on a tip from a city police officer.
Problems between police and Gold Shield didn't start there.
Sgt. Eugene Hlavac of the Zone 2 station in the Hill District described a litany of concerns with the company, including a recent encounter with its owner, Donald Wilson.
Sgt. Hlavac wrote in a draft report of a Saturday incident that Gold Shield guards responded to a report of a stabbing in the Hill, in what appeared to be full police uniform. He told them to leave the property, which they said they were contracted to patrol.
"I then explained the legalities of what they should and shouldn't do, including the extremely dangerous issue regarding two armed agencies responding to the same call for service without knowledge that the other is there," Sgt. Hlavac wrote.
At the station, Sgt. Hlavac said, he was approached by Mr. Wilson, who argued with him and then "took an aggressive stance, pointing at my chest from about 12 inches away and yelling that he is a private citizen with rights." Sgt. Hlavac said he touched Mr. Wilson on the right shoulder, prompting accusations of assault. The sergeant then ordered him to leave the station.
Mr. Wilson is a retiree from the city police who worked 30 years and retired as a detective. When he heard about the incident involving his staff, he said, he rushed to the Zone 2 station on Saturday, where he ran into Sgt. Hlavac in the parking lot.
Mr. Wilson said he introduced himself, and Sgt. Hlavac said, " 'Yeah, I know who you are. You're a friend of Nate Harper.' "
Mr. Wilson said he graduated from the police academy with Chief Harper, and the two were close friends at one time, but only see each other occasionally now.
Mr. Wilson denied being aggressive toward Sgt. Hlavac.
The sergeant then ordered Mr. Wilson off the property, adding, according to Mr. Wilson, " 'and if I hear anything about this, I will have you arrested.' "
"I got in the car, I had tears in my eyes," Mr. Wilson said. He said he filed a statement with the city's Office of Municipal Investigations -- a copy of which he provided to the Post-Gazette. He said he also told Chief Harper, since Sgt. Hlavac mentioned the chief.
Sgt. Hlavac said that he was notified this week that he will be transferred to the overnight shift in Zone 1 on the North Side for reasons that were not explained to him. He referred other questions to his attorney, Phillip DiLucente, who said only, "I am hopeful that if in fact a decision to transfer Sgt. Hlavac to Zone 1 has occurred, that the chief can easily return him again back to Zone 2 as quickly as possible."
Chief Harper declined to comment on the transfer, describing it as an internal matter. Through his spokeswoman, he also refused to talk about concerns about interactions among police and security guards.
Sgt. Hlavac wrote in the draft report that he notified Zone 2 Cmdr. Eric Holmes about the encounter and was told "to leave them alone, they have a contract." Cmdr. Holmes acknowledged a conversation but referred other questions to the chief's office.
Sgt. Hlavac "had some concerns about what the [guards'] function is in these housing developments throughout the city," said police union president Sgt. Mike LaPorte, who said he discussed the issue with Chief Harper this week. "Gene saw all this as a serious concern, and brought it to Holmes and was told to back off."
Sgt. LaPorte also said other officers have concerns about the backgrounds of some security guards, their ability to carry firearms and wear uniforms that resemble those of police and otherwise present themselves as law enforcement.
"The question arises: Where does their authority start and stop, and what properties should they be on?" he said. "I don't think it is an unreasonable request to have a policy that defines the relationship between the Bureau of Police and these private security companies."
Mr. Wilson said he didn't think the incident reflected a broader problem. "It's isolated," he said. "I know that my company -- I try to run a certain way, and I demand that [guards] show respect to the people they encounter, especially the Pittsburgh police."
But Sgt. Hlavac apparently felt otherwise. He complained in his report of "the proliferation of private security guards acting as police officers" in the city, even to the extent of responding to scanner calls.
Mr. Wilson said the tensions may have been driven by his decision recently to fire a guard who was friendly with some city officers, who was handcuffing apartment tenants inappropriately and using vehicle lights and sirens, "which he is not supposed to have."
Some rank-and-file officers have long complained, privately, that private security guards are allowed to run amok in the city, and that Chief Harper tolerates it because of his past connections to some of the major players.
Arthur J. Bedway, chairman of Carnegie-based Victory Security, is a former close friend of the chief. His firm employed Chief Harper's wife, Cynthia Harper, a former city police officer, for an undisclosed period of time that ended prior to September 2011, when the Post-Gazette reported on the relationship.
Mr. Wilson also worked for Victory for a time, he said. He broke off to form Gold Shield, which now employs 14, including some other retired city officers, and patrols private housing developments in the Hill, East Liberty and Homewood, he said.
"I worked very hard to be where I am," Mr. Wilson said.
First Published October 4, 2012 12:00 am