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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wreaking Hlavac

Posted By on Wed, Apr 21, 2010 at 7:32 PM

OK, it's way too soon to say I told you so, but ...

Pittsburgh police sergeant Eugene Hlavac -- who was terminated by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl after being accused of hitting the mother of his child -- was found not guilty yesterday.

Hlavac, you'll remember, had been promoted to sergeant by Ravenstahl back in 2007, notwithstanding a pair of domestic calls to his apartment in the months before. He was one of three officers Ravenstahl promoted despite alleged domestic problems in their past. But when Hlavac was charged with domestic violence this past December, Ravenstahl responded by terminating him the following month. In a statement, the mayor explained that

Investigators interviewed witnesses and heard Mr. Hlavac’s account of the story. Mr. Hlavac was also given the opportunity to explain the incident to Public Safety Director Michael Huss. In this case, the evidence revealed by the internal investigation speaks for itself.

Well, apparently the evidence didn't speak quite so loudly during Hlavac's criminal trial. Judge Thomas Flaherty (the former city controller) determined that eyewitness testimony cast real doubt on what happened between Hlavac and the mother of his child.

Despite that outcome, Mayor Ravenstahl has said he will try to prevent Hlavac from getting his job back. He notes that the standard for dismissing an employee is much lower than the standard of "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt" that applies in a courtroom.

The thing of it is, as I noted a few months back... the city doesn't have such a great track record on this stuff. Recall the case of Paul Abel, a Pittsburgh police officer who'd been accused of pistol-whipping and accidentally shooting a South Side man after Abel had been celebrating his birthday. 

Both Abel and Hlavac were terminated by Ravenstahl before their criminal charges were heard in court. Both Abel and Hlavac were cleared by judges. (Jeffrey A. Manning ruled that Abel had gotten into the altercation with the victim in an effort to maintain public order, and "It is not the obligation of this court to police the police department.")

 

And Abel has already been reinstated by an arbitrator -- over the objections of police chief Nate Harper, who lamented, "How can we maintain the trust of the public when we can't terminate someone when excessive force is used?"

So what's to make us think this outcome will be any different? Not much, as far as I can see. If anything, the allegations against Hlavac seem shakier than the accusations against Abel, due to the conflicting eyewitness testimony. And as I wrote a few months ago, Hlavac

has 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. 

At the time, I thought Ravenstahl should just put Hlavac on desk duty, pending a final determination of the case. You know, the way the city did with the three officers accused of beating Homewood teenager Jordan Miles. 

In fact, there's an interesting contrast here. Miles, you may recall, was involved in a late-night altercation with Pittsburgh detectives in January. A judge later tossed out the charges against Miles, who police claimed was acting suspiciously. The officers involved, meanwhile, have been on desk duty ever since, awaiting an internal review of their actions. Ravenstahl has previously pledged that the review would be concluded by the end of February. But it's now nearly two months later, and still no report has been issued. 

Hlavac, by contrast, was canned in January -- just weeks after the charges against him were filed. I don't exactly begrudge the city moving slowly on the Jordan Miles Three -- it's about time we saw some deliberation from our officials. And besides, there's apparently a federal investigation into this matter, and the possibility of a civil-rights lawsuit as well. (Though the city has said its internal investigations don't hinge on any outside review.) 

But here's what I'd argue if I was Hlavac's attorney. I'd argue that Luke Ravenstahl caved to pressure from women's groups -- pressure he brought on himself by promoting officers accused of domestic violence in the first place. (OK, maybe if I'm Hlavac's attorney I don't bring that second part up.) I'd argue that my client was thrown under the bus, just so the Ravenstahl administration could deflect criticism.

And if I was Hlavac's attorney, I'd probably feel pretty optimistic about my chances. 

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