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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Blues for the Men in Blue

Posted By on Wed, Dec 30, 2009 at 10:11 AM

"This was in his private life. It has nothing to do with his professional life."

So said FOP president Dan O'Hara of Eugene Hlavac, the sergeant recently accused of dislocating the jaw of his child's mother, in the Post-Gazette. Hlavac, who Mayor Luke Ravenstahl promoted to sergeant in 2007 despite previous domestic-abuse allegations, has been suspended, pending termination.

I actually have a bit of sympathy for Hlavac. As unpopular as that will be to say, I'll explain why in a minute. But here's the thing: As far as Pittsburgh police are concerned, it's no longer legimate for O'Hara to try distinguishing between personal and professional conduct.

Let's remember the case of Officer Paul Abel. Earlier this year, Abel was accused of pistol-whipping, and accidentally shooting, a hapless victim on the South Side. Abel had been off-duty at the time, and was celebrating his birthday by knocking back a few. If that's not the definition of living your personal life, I don't know what is. But Abel got into an altercation outside a bar that night and, in an apparent case of mistaken identity, carried out a reprisal against an innocent man. 

Abel was charged with a handful of offenses, and lost his job. But Judge Jeffrey Manning tossed out the criminal complaint. Police officers, he ruled, could engage in law-enforcement whether they were on the clock or not -- and Abel could have been trying to execute his duties by apprehending someone he thought had committed a crime.

"It is not the obligation of this court to police the police department," Manning said.

In other words, Manning waved off an offense Abel committed in his private life because in his professional life, he's a cop. So here's my advice to Hlavac: If you go before Manning for your criminal hearing, just tell him you were reaching for your handcuffs to carry out an arrest -- but then your girlfriend's face got in the way.

O'Hara certainly didn't object to Manning's ruling in the Abel case. When an arbitrator gave Abel his job back over the city's objections, O'Hara blithely asserted: "If what he did was so grievous, then he would have been found guilty of something in the trial."

But you can't have it both ways, Officer O'Hara. If a judge says that a badge can excuse things cops do in their private lives, shouldn't a cop's private conduct determine whether he can carry a badge? 

Like I said, I do have some sympathy for Hlavac. He's been accused of a crime, that's all. Firing him on the basis of an as-yet unproven accusation is arguably unfair -- and it may end up biting the city in the ass. If Hlavac is cleared, a la Abel, he'll probably get reinstated by an arbitrator too. Not only would he back on the force -- with back pay -- but we'd be out the cost of time and money spent defending the premature decision to remove him. 

Women's groups point out that the state's Confidence in Law Enforcement Act require that officers be suspended when they are charged with domestic abuse or other crimes. But the actual language of the law reads as follows:

a law enforcement officer charged with [such an offense] shall be immediately suspended from employment in law enforcement AS A LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER until final disposition of the charge ...

Note the all-caps portion. To me, that makes it legal to retain Hlavac in a desk job, without service weapon or any other trappings of state power. FOP attorney Bryan Campbell alludes to that interpretation in today's P-G story, asserting that state law "allows an officer to be removed from the streets and be placed in a desk job." 

I actually have a strong feeling that Hlavac's defenders are right in claiming the city is railroading Hlavac for political reasons. Ravenstahl must know how badly he's stepped in it, given the controversy that surrounded his decision to promote Hlavac -- and two other police accused of domestic violence -- in the first place.

But this outcome isn't really surprising. Like I said way back in the summer of 2007, the decision to promote those cops was unfair to the cops themselves

"I'm asking the public to give us a chance," Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson pled during a June 21 press conference.

That might be easier if the public had been given a chance to see the evidence [of abuse] before learning of the promotions. But Trosky was never tried on the 1997 charges; his wife didn’t show up at the hearing. [Another officer] hasn’t even faced his charges yet.

That’s unfair to everyone, including [the officer] himself.

So yeah, Hlavac probably shouldn't be ousted -- at least not yet. But he probably shouldn't have been promoted in 2007 either. Ravenstahl all but admitted as much at the time, claiming he authorized the promotions without knowing about the abuse allegations aganinst Hlavac and another officer:

"Had I had the opportunity to examine their cases, or look at the issues prior to the promotions," he said, "perhaps we would not be sitting here today."

So the city rushed to judgment in promoting Hlavac back then. And it's rushing to judgment in trying to fire him now. He's getting railroaded today, perhaps, but then everyone else in the city got railroaded back in 2007. Hlavac may feel like a victim here, but he's going to have to get in back of a very long fucking line. 

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