Tuesday, March 25, 2014

CPRB recommends firing officer involved in high-profile arrest of teacher in Homewood

Posted By on Tue, Mar 25, 2014 at 9:10 PM

The Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board tonight recommended the termination of Pittsburgh police officer Jonathan Gromek for conduct it deemed "egregious" in connection with his arrest of teacher Dennis Henderson outside a community meeting last June.

On seven of eight counts of violations of bureau policy, the CPRB found Gromek's actions to be either "very serious" or "egregious." A finding of an egregious act of misconduct, under Pittsburgh's Discipline Policy Manual, can lead to a five day suspension, pending termination.

The panel found there was not enough evidence to sustain the complaint that Gromek used excessive force during the arrest, but it did find that there was enough evidence to say that Gromek violated policies concerning unbecoming conduct, conduct toward the public, operation of bureau vehicles, filing records or reports, incompetency and truthfulness.

The CPRB found that Gromek "initiated an unnecessary encounter with the Complainant and his companion, escalated the situation into a questionable arrest of the Complainant and then proceeded to knowingly file a false report of the incident to law enforcement," according to the CPRB's recommendation.

It continues: "While the panel recognizes the conduct demonstrated in this case as an exception, public perception tends to be expressed otherwise. The panel emphasizes its perspective that the restoration of trust and improved relations between the community and the Bureau of Police will not occur until professional, lawful and respectful conduct is demanded by police management and demonstrated as the norm practiced by Pittsburgh police officers."

In testimony Henderson offered Jan. 16, he described a series of events that are consistent with a federal lawsuit he filed against Gromek:

After leaving a Community Empowerment Association meeting on June 26, he walked to his car to get a business card for a journalist. The two men were standing near Henderson's car, when a police cruiser came speeding down Kelly street, almost striking them, Henderson told the review board.

The situation escalated after Henderson, in a loud voice, exclaimed "wow." Gromek made a U-turn and confronted Henderson, asking if he had a problem. Henderson asked for Gromek's name and badge number and pulled out his phone to start recording their interaction, according to Henderson's testimony.

Gromek put both men in handcuffs (though the journalist was quickly released) and Henderson was taken to Allegheny County Jail and charged with disorderly conduct, obstructing a highway and resisting arrest (the charges were later dropped).

Gromek's police union attorney, Bryan Campbell, at the time made the case that "[Officers are] given a lot of leeway when they're out there because they have to make split-second decisions," arguing it was a fluid situation and Gromek's response was within the bounds of his authority. Gromek declined to testify.

The CPRB's recommendation that Gromek be terminated is non-binding. And it comes after after the Office of Municipal Investigations found Gromek had violated bureau policy and the city appeared to settle on a written reprimand as the appropriate punishment, drawing criticism from both the police union and ACLU.

The CPRB's findings will be sent to the mayor and police chief, who have thirty days to decide whether it will accept, reject or modify its recommendations. If the CPRB's recommendations are rejected or modified, the city is required to offer a written explanation.

CPRB executive director Elizabeth Pittinger has expressed frustration in the past with the timing of the board's recommendations, acknowledging they're less effective if the city makes a decision about whether or not to discipline an officer before the review board weighs in.

And even though the board did not have a quorum tonight — a problem that has persisted through a significant chunk of its history, Pittinger said it was able to release its findings because they were issued unanimously by a three-member panel made up of CPRB members.

"It's a pretty severe recommendation," she said, noting the board wasn't gauging its effectiveness based on whether the city adopts its recommendations. "They're expressing what they think is appropriate."

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