The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit today against a Pittsburgh police officer who arrested a teacher outside a Homewood Community Empowerment Association meeting this summer, an incident that incensed many community members.
The lawsuit claims Dennis Henderson, a teacher at the Manchester Academy Charter School, and photojorunalist Rossano Stewart "were arrested and hundcuffed merely for criticizing the way that Officer [Jonathan] Gromek, who is white, drove down a residential street."
"I worked hard to stay out of the system," Henderson said at a press conference this afternoon. "If it wasn't racial, I have no idea what it was. I hope this lawsuit opens candid dialogue about racial profiling in the region."
Almost exactly a year after 20-year-old Leon Ford Jr. was paralyzed during a routine traffic stop, his family and friends took their plea for justice to council chambers.
"Everything shows police violated policy, common sense and the truth," said Ford's attorney, Benjamin Crump, flanked by friends and family holding posters of support and outrage. "We're here a year later to tell the mayor and the new administration that [we] aren't going anywhere."
Ford was shot by Pittsburgh police officer David Derbish during a traffic stop in Highland Park last November. The stop lasted longer than usual because officers doubted Ford's identity — though all of his paperwork appeared to be in order. Derbish jumped into the passenger side of the car to try to pull Ford out after he saw a "bulge" in Ford's sweatpants he thought was a gun. The car accelerated and Derbish, still inside the car, fired five shots at Ford before the car veered off the road and crashed.
During its scheduled meeting, Ford addressed city council and dozens of his supporters just minutes after his parents: "I felt like I was in my prime," Ford says. "I was living life, I was having fun [and] they took my legs from me. I'm going to make sure my future is brighter than ever."
A Pittsburgh police officer who has been the subject of citizen complaints, and who was acquitted of criminal charges, should get his job back with some restrictions, an arbitration panel ruled today.
Garrett Brown, 42, will be reinstated unless the city appeals the arbitration panel's ruling, according to Assistant Solicitor Wendy Kobee. Kobee said she didn't know whether the city would do so. Precise details of Brown's reinstatement are not yet clear, but Kobee says they include a one-year probationary period with a "last-chance" agreement, under which Brown could be terminated if he faces further discipline.
Brown was fired in February 2011, just a few months after Blaine Johnston and Matthew Mazzie say Brown slammed into their delivery truck, threw coins at the window and punched their mirror when they were on their way to Children's Hospital to make a delivery. The police report tells a different story, claiming that Brown was rear-ended and tried to get the drivers to stop to exchange insurance information. That incident, which was first recounted by City Paper, is now the subject of a civil suit in federal court. Brown was charged with insurance fraud and reckless endangerment connected to the incident, but was later acquitted.
After the acquittal, Brown's effort to reverse his termination went to arbitration.
Former city police officer Garrett Brown — who was acquitted of insurance fraud on May 20, has formally petitioned the city to get his job back.
Brown, 42, was charged with lying to insurance investigators when he claimed he was rear-ended by a donut delivery truck driven by Blaine Johnston and Matt Mazzie on Nov. 18, 2010. Johnston and Mazzie contended— both in a 2011 City Paper story and a non-jury trial in May before Common Pleas Judge Jill Rangos — that Brown chased them in his pick-up truck and confronted them without ever identifying himself as an off-duty police officer.
Rangos ultimately ruled there were too many conflicting accounts about what happened that night to uphold the charges against Brown, who'd worked in the traffic division.
Brown was terminated from the police force in September 2011 because of the incident, and Mike Huss, the city's public-safety director, previously told City Paper "we have no intention of reversing our position."
According to solicitor Dan Regan, through a statement emailed by mayoral spokeswoman Marissa Doyle, Brown had appealed his discharge but the appeal was stayed pending outcome of his criminal case. The Fraternal Order of Police, according to Regan, is proceeding with appeal of the discharge. The case will go before a panel of arbiters — one appointed by the FOP, one appointed by the city and one neutral — in September, who will issue a ruling.
Police spokeswoman Diane Richard had no comment.
District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. has decided to drop criminal charges against a charter school teacher arrested while talking to another man outside a meeting held to discuss how to improve police/community relations.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dennis Henderson of the North Side, a teacher at the Manchester Academy Charter School, had attended a community meeting sponsored by the Community Empowerment Association in East Liberty on June 27. As he talked to a journalist outside the meeting, a police car driven by Officer Jonathan Gromek passed the two at a high rate of speed, prompting Henderson to make a comment about how fast the officer was traveling.
The officer turned around, came back and put handcuffs on both men. The journalist, Rossano Stewart, was released, but Henderson was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstructing a roadway. On July 4, community members rallied to have the charges dropped. On Tuesday, they got their wish.
Henderson was scheduled to appear in court tomorrow, but Zappala's decision rendered that hearing moot. In a statement released by Zappala's office he said:
I have reviewed the circumstances surrounding the matter to this point. It's clear that the encounter with police resulted in part from two individuals exercising their constitutional rights.
Having reviewed the significance of the allegations and without regard to potential prosecutorial merit, I have directed that the charges be withdrawn pending a complete review by the City of Pittsburgh Police Office of Municipal Investigations to determine any further action.
A former city traffic officer accused of insurance fraud, reckless endangerment and related charges in a 2010 road rage case was acquitted this afternoon in a non-jury trial.
Common Pleas Judge Jill E. Rangos granted Garrett John Brown's motion for insufficient evidence in the case that stemmed from an encounter — first recounted in this City Paper story — with donut deliverymen Matt Mazzie and Blaine Johnston in the early morning of Nov. 18, 2010.
As they testified in court today, Johnston and Mazzie contend that they crossed paths with Brown around 4 a.m., when Brown began chasing them after they turned in front of his truck off Fifth Avenue and onto Morewood Avenue. Both men testified that Brown was far enough away that the turn was safe, and that they heard screeching brakes after they passed through the intersection. Brown, they alleged, chased them down, and confronted them at multiple stoplights — without identifying himself as an officer. At one point, they say, he threw coins at the window while pulled up alongside them; during another confrontation he allegedly punched the side of the van and reached for Johnston's arm. Later, they testified, he ran them off the road; as Brown left his own vehicle, they said, they drove off to Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville, their next delivery stop, where police arrived after Mazzie dialed 9-1-1.
"Some psycho just tried to run us off the road," Mazzie can be heard telling a dispatcher in the recording, which was played in the courtroom today.
Although he did not testify today, according to a police report taken that night, Brown told police that he was sitting at a red light when Johnston rear-ended his truck. Brown, who was off-duty at the time of the incident, told police officers at Children's he had pulled up to the van to exchange information, but Johnston fled. In a recording of Brown's own 9-1-1 call, which was also played in court, Brown tells a dispatcher he was rear-ended by a U-Haul truck which left.
Erie Insurance paid Brown approximately $2,100 for damages to his truck and $445 for a rental car, but questioned Brown's version of events after hearing other accounts of the crash. They hired their own investigator and concluded Brown's version wasn't consistent with his statement, according to a complaint against Brown. Brown was later charged with lying to investigators and on his claim when he said he was rear-ended.
Rangos heard nearly three hours of testimony from Mazzie and Johnston, as well as from Erie Insurance adjustor Gloria Vish and city police Sgt. William Kunz. In the afternoon, the prosecution withdrew its expert witness, William Simcox Sr., after Rangos and defense attorney William H. Difenderfer questioned his credentials for accident reconstruction. Simcox, a supervisor for accident-investigation company Unified Investigators, primarily deals with fire and mechanical investigations.
Much of the debate in the courtroom hinged on discrepancies between the witnesses' accounts.
Johnston estimated that he and Mazzie were traveling at 45 miles per hour. Johnston said he couldn't remember with which part of the truck Brown struck them, but said the two vehicles ended up parallel, facing the same direction. Johnston said that as Brown got out of his truck, he saw Brown reach behind his back, near his waistline — and that Johnston threw the van in reverse at Mazzie's prodding. In the process, he testified, his van ripped off Brown's bumper.
"I was fearful of my life," Johnston said. "This was getting out of control."
Mazzie, who estimated the vehicles' speed at only 25 mph, acknowledged telling Johnston to leave. But he testified that he didn't see Brown reach behind his back. "He looked agitated," Mazzie said.
Rangos ruled that between the 9-1-1 calls and inconsistencies in witness statements, there were too many conflicting accounts about what happened that night to uphold the charges. "The witnesses were unclear on how the accident occurred," she said. While Brown may have engaged in "bad behavior," she added, "I don't see that rising to reckless endangerment." While "it's pretty clear Mr. Brown did not answer truthfully [on the insurance company's questionnaire] that words had been exchanged between the parties," she said, there was insufficient evidence to indicate he had committed insurance fraud.
"I'm just not seeing how the Commonwealth can meet [the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt] when we've got three different versions of how an accident happens — a fourth from the defendant," Rangos said. "This isn't a civil case ... I need beyond a reasonable doubt at this point."
Brown and his attorney left immediately following the trial — we've contacted Difenderfer for comment and will update this post if we hear back. Nicholas Radoycis Jr., the prosecutor, declined comment after the verdict. Mike Manko, spokesman for District Attorney Stephen Zappala, said prosecutors have no option to re-file charges. "We believed that we had the evidence to try and case and the judge ruled otherwise," he said in an e-mail.
Brown, a 10-year veteran of the police force, was fired from the bureau on Feb. 16, 2011. Johnston faced charges from leaving the scene of an accident from the case, which were later dismissed because Brown failed to appear at the preliminary hearings.
Both Mazzie and Johnston declined comment after the trial.
Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. And the third time, apparently, it repeats as an allegation in a federal civil-rights suit against the Pittsburgh police.
As the Post-Gazette first reported Sunday, the city's police brass is on trial in a federal civil court this week, thanks to a lawsuit filed by 32-year-old Jarret Fate, who alleges that his vintage Porsche was damaged in 2010 by a former police detective, Bradley Walker. Walker reportedly rammed his vehicle into Fate's and later choked the man; he was fired after pleading guilty to simple assault in the incident. But Fate is alleging that the city was negligent in keeping Walker on the force even after he'd been the subject of more than 30 complaints between 1993 and 2008. The complaints included allegations of excessive force, domestic violence, and "road rage"-like behavior. You can read a list of those allegations against Walker below, in a document culled from fillings in Fate's lawsuit.
Judging from yesterday's arguments in court, city attorneys will argue that Walker was off-duty when he accosted Fate, so his behavior isn't the city's fault. It'd be ironic if that defense actually worked: In another case of a cop accosting an innocent citizen while off the clock, a judge found that police officers are never really "off duty" -- even when they are celebrating their wife's birthday on the South Side and shoot someone by accident.
But whatever the court finds in the Fate case, there's at least anecdotal evidence to suggest that the city can't effectively handle officers with long disciplinary records.
A coalition of groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Black Political Empowerment Project today called for community input in the search for a new police chief and the qualities/agenda he or she should possess.
"This is a healing moment," said Tim Stevens, executive director of B-PEP, citing recent turmoil in the department as the result of a federal investigation into potentially fraudulent spending accounts. "This is an opportunity for us to move forward and hopefully create a future with regard to police-community relations that will hopefully be at a level we've never seen before."
Vic Walczak, legal director of ACLU-PA, said it was time to address leadership failures in the bureau that has led to high-profile incidents involving police officers — such as using plainclothes details known as "99 cars;" five off-duty officers shooting at a fleeing vehicle in the South Side; the beating of Homewood teenager Jordan Miles and other "countless crazy off-duty behavior."
"The worst part is not these incidents occurred," Walczak said. "But who's taking responsibility — not only for the incidents but standing up to say they won't happen again?"
Walczak said the ACLU and community groups were calling on Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and mayoral candidates Bill Peduto and Michael Lamb to pledge to comply with bureau management guidelines contained in the 1997 consent decree that led to federal oversight of the department until 2002; and pledge to diversify the force by race and gender.
"The police are becoming increasingly white and increasingly male," Walczak warned. But he said the ACLU "wasn't quite there" in taking the city back to court which led to the former consent decree.
Hazel Blackman, regional council member with Action United, said the lack of diversity leads to distrust within the black community. "We feel targeted because of the color of our skin," she says. "We have a problem of a trust."
The groups invited Ravenstahl, Peduto, Lamb and the public to participate in a public hearing on the matter that they say is scheduled for next Wednesday at 1 p.m. (though the meeting hasn't been confirmed yet by the City Clerk's office.)
Ravenstahl appointed Regina McDonald as interim chief, and said at a press conference last week he would not be looking within the current department for a replacement.
City councilor Ricky Burgess, who also spoke at the press conference, said he would not confirm any appointment that came from within the department. Burgess said he would be looking at a chief's specific attributes and administrative agenda for whether they were qualified and would improve relations within the community.
"The best way to improve public safety," he said, "is to improve community confidence."
In the ongoing drama, Police Accounts of Our Lives, City Controller Michael Lamb today denied any knowledge of potentially fraudulent or unauthorized slush accounts and theorized that the city's finance department misrepresented funds.
He also used the press conference to launch an anti-fraud hotline.
"The need here is obvious," he said at a press conference, citing the federal investigation into the city's police bureau that led to the resignation of former police chief Nate Harper and questions about funds in the bureau's special events department. "This administration's response has been to look for who to blame."
Lamb denied that he knew as recently as three months ago about potential fraudulent accounts at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union. Lamb said that a member of the Fraternal Order of Police, Officer Bob Swartzwelder, came to him in November for a "general discussion" on how funds come into the city, where they go and who handles it.
Swartzwelder returned to the office in December, Lamb said, "with more sort of detailed information."
"Then we began our initial questions over at the bureau and based on the answers to those questions that we decided we should go over and audit," Lamb said.
"Again we weren't looking at fraud at that point," Lamb said. "We were looking at what we thought were questionable management practices."
Lamb said Swartzwelder "had no suspicion" of fraud. "I think he's just as surprised about this whole thing as anybody."
Lamb said his auditors first had to do a required audit of the bureau's property room which is "an all hands on deck kind of thing." Then, as he went to conduct the audit for the special events office, "the FBI seized many of the files we need".
Lamb said that his office isn't responsible for tracking city revenue: "Any incoming money is audited and accounted for by the treasurer's office and finance department."
Lamb said that the treasurer's office and the city finance department should have noticed funds "that should have been identified as city revenue were misidentified as overtime reimbursement. Those funds went into the premium pay account when some of the money was taxpayer money."
By Lamb's theory, the improper channeling of money to questionable credit union accounts "basically padded the [premium pay] account so there was money available in that account, so if someone were going to pilfer checks, it would have gone unnoticed." But he says his theory still has to be proven by his audit and the investigation.
Lamb says the padding may not be the result of a nefarious plot but unintentional misrepresentation of funds.
"Our original intent...was to look at what we think is the mismanagement of the money which led to the padding, not a conspiracy to commit fraud. ... This, we think, provided the opportunity for fraud, but maybe was not the fraud itself."
Lamb also announced the formation of a fraud hotline in his office, so city employees, vendors and public can report fraud, waste and abuse of city tax dollars.
The hotline launches this Friday. Those with tips or complaints can call 412-255-4777.
After days of standing behind Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Chief Nate Harper, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl abruptly asked for his resignation today, after spending two hours this afternoon being questioned by the FBI and U.S. District Attorney's Office.
In the course of that questioning, Ravenstahl told reporters tonight, he made the decision to ask Harper to step down. Harper has been with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police for 34 years. He was sworn in as Chief of Police in 2006.
"I learned enough to know it was time for Chief Harper to resign," Ravenstahl said.
Ravenstahl said that following the meeting he called the chief and asked for the resignation by phone. He said no severance package was discussed and whether or not he continues to receive a pension will be up to the pension board. "As of today, he is no longer a city employee," Ravenstahl said.
Harper has not been charged with any crimes.
Despite the federal agents' questioning, Ravenstahl says that he does not believe he is becoming ensnared in the ongoing investigation that has raised questions about mysterious bank accounts, Harper's business relationships with subordinates and the handling of police officers' off-duty work.
"I am not a target," Ravenstahl asserted repeatedly. He said he met with federal authorities at their request this afternoon, but did so voluntarily — without a subpoena.
A personal attorney and a city attorney attended the meeting with him, Ravenstahl said. He declined to name the attorney personally representing him.
Assistant Chief Regina McDonald will become acting chief "indefinitely," Ravenstahl said.
Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson, who served as acting chief recently after Harper took time off following his mother's death, is on vacation now, Ravenstahl said. But he said McDonald is likely to remain in place even after Donaldson's return.
Ravenstahl spokesperson Joanna Doven described the transition details about a half hour before the press conference as "fluid," saying then that Harper's replacement was not yet known. Ravenstahl started the conference nearly an hour after it had been originally scheduled, emerging from meetings on the subject.
Ravenstahl said he has not asked anyone else to resign related to the investigation.
Reacting to criticisms from two of his challengers, City Controller Michael Lamb and City Councilor Bill Peduto, in the upcoming mayoral election, who argued Harper should have been put on leave or fired much sooner, Ravenstahl said he needed more information before making that decision.
"Others without my responsibilities can be quick to judge and make politically expedient statements," he said. "I cannot."
"This had zero to do with politics," he said. "It's a political loser either way."
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